Salivary Gland Cancer

What causes Salivary Gland Cancer?

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.

How to identify Salivary Gland Cancer?

If the person is suffering from salivary gland cancer he/she will exhibit the following signs and symptoms:

  • A lump or swelling on or near your jaw or in your neck or mouth
  • Numbness in part of your face
  • Muscle weakness on one side of your face
  • Persistent pain in the area of a salivary gland
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Trouble opening your mouth widely

How to Diagnose salivary gland cancer?

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.

3. Biopsy

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.

How to treat salivary gland Cancer?

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.

1. Surgery

Surgery for salivary gland cancer may include:

  • Removing a small portion of the affected salivary gland

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.

  • Removing the entire salivary gland

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.

  • Removing lymph nodes in your neck

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.

  • Reconstructive surgery

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.

3. Chemotherapy

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.

How to Prevent salivary gland cancer?

  • As we do not know the exact cause of salivary gland cancer, there is no definite way to prevent it.
  • It is always a good idea to maintain a healthy diet, limiting alcohol intake and avoid using tobacco.
  • People who work with radioactive substances like silica dust and nickel alloy dust must take measures to protect themselves when using these materials. These may lower the risk of salivary gland cancer and other more common cancers too.

Side Effects of salivary gland cancer

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

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Reduced production of saliva, which can lead to a dry mouth
  • Temporary sore throat
  • Sores in the mouth and throat
  • Hoarseness
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Temporary partial or complete loss of taste
  • Bone pain and bone damage

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