The cause of salivary gland cancer is not known but research is being carried out to find out the possible causes. As far as doctors know, it occurs due to the cells that develop mutations in DNA which causes the cells to grow and divide rapidly. These mutated cells continue to live when other cells die and the accumulating cells form a tumor. Though these cancer cells (tumor) are not infectious but they can break off and spread to other areas of the body.
If the person is suffering from salivary gland cancer he/she will exhibit the following signs and symptoms:
There are different tests and procedures to diagnose the salivary gland cancer. These include:
1. Physical examination
Your doctor will test and feel your jaw, neck and throat for lumps or swelling.
2. Imaging tests
Imaging tests like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computerized tomography (CT) and positron emission tomography (PET) is conducted to determine the size and location of your salivary gland cancer.
Biopsy involves collection of a sample of tissue for testing. The doctor inserts a needle into the suspicious area and draws out fluid or cells which are then analyzed in the laboratory to confirm the salivary gland cancer.
4. Determining the extent of salivary gland cancer
Once the cancer is diagnosed, the next step is to determine the extent (stage) of your cancer. Usually cancer stages are identified by Roman numerals which indicate the starting or an advanced stage of a cancer. Once the extent is determined, it will give a clear idea to the doctor in giving you the appropriate treatment.
Treatment for salivary gland cancer depends on the type, size and stage of salivary gland cancer, your overall health and your preferences. Salivary gland cancer treatment usually involves surgery, with or without radiation therapy.
Surgery for salivary gland cancer may include:
If the tumor is small and located in an easy-to-access spot, then your surgeon may remove a portion of the affected salivary gland and a healthy tissue that surrounds it.
If you have a larger tumor and if it extends into nearby structures like the facial nerves, the ducts that connect your salivary glands, facial bones and skin then your doctor may recommend removing the entire salivary gland and the parts affected with it.
If the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes in your neck, then the surgery involves the complete removal of the lymph nodes in your neck (neck dissection). There is a chance of removing other muscles and nerves in your neck, as well.
If the cancer has spread to other areas and the surgeon has removed the other parts then they need to be repaired or replaced by reconstructive surgery.
Treating salivary gland cancer with surgery may not be appropriate in all cases as several important nerves are located in and around the glands.
2. Radiation therapy
Radiation therapy effectively kills cancer by using high-powered energy beams like X-rays. Radiation therapy is most used after surgery to kill any cancer cells that might remain. In some cases where surgery is not possible because the tumor is very large or is located in a place that makes removal too risky, then radiation therapy alone may be used to treat salivary gland cancer.
Chemotherapy involves treating the salivary gland cancer with drugs. Though the chemotherapy treatment is currently not in use as a standard treatment, but researchers are studying its use.
After treatment, the patients may face few side effects that might last up to few days or even few months. They are:
Sunburn-like skin changes