What is salivary gland cancer?The salivary glands are responsible for producing saliva through a series of ducts. Saliva aids in digestion and improves the health of your mouth, throat and teeth. There are three pairs of salivary glands located around the jaw. These are called the parotid, sublingual and submandibular glands. Many smaller salivary glands exist in the lips, cheeks, and throughout the mouth and throat. Occurring at a rate of about 1 case per 100,000 people per year, salivary gland cancer is very rare and makes up less than 1% of cancers in the United States. Over 80% of salivary gland tumours occur in the parotid gland, many of which are not caused by cancer (benign).
Causes and risk factors for salivary gland cancer:It is unclear what causes salivary gland cancer. However, there are several risk factors associated with the illness. Anything that increases the chance of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Risk factors do not guarantee that you will get cancer; whereas not having risk factors doesn’t mean that you will not get cancer. Common risk factors for salivary gland cancer include:
- Age – As people grow older, they are more likely to be diagnosed with salivary gland cancer. Most cases occur in people over the age of 50.
- Radiation therapy – People who have previously received radiation therapy to treat cancer in the head or neck are at a higher risk. This happens because although radiation can destroy cancer cells, it can also affect surrounding tissue, increasing the risk of cancer reoccurring.
- HIV infection – People who suffer from HIV or AIDS are at a higher risk of developing salivary gland cancer.
What are the symptoms of salivary gland cancer?There are several common symptoms associated with salivary gland cancer. Symptoms may vary depending on the tumour’s location, stage and severity. Sometimes, there may be no symptoms and the cancer will only be found as a result of a dental check-up or physical examination by a doctor. Common signs and symptoms of salivary gland cancer include:
- A lump in your throat – As the tumour grows, it can often be noticed as a lump or swelling around your jaw, neck, cheek or mouth. This lump will not go away and usually increase in size over time.
- Pain – You may experience persistent pain around the site of the suspected tumour. This pain may be ongoing or only noticeable when pressure is applied.
- Numbness – Tumours can affect surrounding nerves, leading to numbness and/or muscle weakness in parts of the face.
- Difficulty swallowing – As a tumour becomes bigger, it can affect your ability to swallow.
How is salivary gland cancer diagnosed?Upon seeing a doctor, they will ask you questions about your symptoms. This will give them a better idea of what could be causing the issues. Following this, doctors may examine your mouth with a small lens and light. This will give them a better view of your salivary glands and surrounding tissue. A nasoendoscope may be used to get a better view of the back of your throat. A nasoendoscope is a thin, flexible tube with an attached camera. It is carefully inserted into the nose so that doctors can gain a better view. Following these steps, a biopsy may be recommended. A biopsy is a procedure where a small amount of tissue is removed from the suspected area (usually via a syringe). The sample is then tested in a lab for signs of cancer. This allows doctors to give an accurate diagnosis.
Treatment options for salivary gland cancer:There are several available treatment options for salivary gland cancer, with the most common treatment being surgery. Your treatment will depend on the position, stage and grade of the cancer as well as your general health. Sometimes, several treatments are combined to increase effectiveness (eg. surgery and radiation therapy). Surgery: The aim of surgery is to remove as much cancer as possible. This is often achieved by removing the salivary gland as well as some surrounding tissue. Lymph nodes may also be removed suring surgery. This is done to prevent cancer from reoccurring. During surgery, doctors will do everything they can to preserve the areas of your mouth that help you to talk and swallow correctly. However, it should be noted that there is a risk that surgery can affect facial function and appearance. Salivary glands can be difficult to remove because of the many important nerves located around and inside them.For example, a nerve that affects facial movement runs directly through the parotid gland. Since risks vary depending on the location f the tumour, your ssurgeon will discuss these risks with you prior to surgery. Radiation therapy: Radiation therapy is a treatment where high-powered beams such as x-rays or protons are used to target and destroy cancer cells. This process is overseen by a radiation oncologist. Your doctor may recommend radiation therapy as an alternative treatment to surgery, or as a treatment to reduce the risk of cancer reoccurring after surgery. Radiation therapy can cause side effects. This isually disappear a few weeks or months after therapy finishes, but some people have a dry mouth for a long time afterwards. The most common sympotoms of radiation therapy are:
- Tiredness and fatigue
- Red, irritated skin around the targeted area
- Loss of hair around the targeted area
- A dry mouth
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Increased risk of infection
- Loss of hair
- Tiredness and fatigue