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Read about different types of salivary gland cancer. 

Your type of salivary gland cancer depends on which type of salivary gland your cancer started in and the type of cell it started in.

Types of salivary glands

There are two main types of salivary glands called the:

  • major salivary glands
  • minor salivary glands

We have 3 main pairs of major salivary glands, the:

  • parotid glands – just under the lobes of your ears
  • sublingual glands – under your tongue
  • submandibular glands – under each side of your jawbone
Diagram showing the position of the salivary glands

As well as the 3 major pairs of salivary glands we have over 600 smaller, minor salivary glands throughout the lining of the mouth and throat.

Benign tumours

Most tumours of the salivary gland are not cancer, they are benign. This is especially so for parotid cancer where 3 out of 4 tumours (75%) are benign.

The symptoms are similar whether a tumour is a cancer or a benign lump. You usually notice a painless lump or swelling on or near your jaw or in your mouth or neck.

There are different types of benign tumours. The most common type are pleomorphic adenomas (pronounced play-o-morf-ik ad-en-oh-mars) and are usually slow growing.

Your doctor is likely to suggest surgery to remove these as there is a small risk of a cancer developing within the tumour.

If these benign tumours are likely to come back again you may have a course of radiotherapy.

Cells of the salivary gland

The salivary glands are made up of a number of different types of cells. For example, there are acinic cells, which make and release saliva. Mucoepidermoid cells line the gland.

The type of cancer you have is named after the type of cell the cancer started in. The doctor needs to take a biopsy and a specialist looks at the cells under a microscope before they can tell which type it is.

Your doctor will tell you which salivary gland is affected and the cell type.

Mucoepidermoid cancer

Mucoepidermoid  (pronounced mew-co-ep-ee-derm-oyd) cells are the lining cells of the salivary glands. Cancers of this type form tiny, mucous filled cysts.

Most of these cancers develop in the parotid gland but they can also develop in the submandibular glands.

The parotid and submandibular glands are types of major salivary glands. Mucoepidermoid cancers can also develop in the minor salivary glands.

Most mucoepidermoid cancers are slow growing (low grade) but they can be fast growing (high grade).

With this type of cancer, about a third of people have pain or some sort of paralysis of part of the face as a symptom.

Acinic cell carcinoma

Acinic (pronounced a-sin-ik) cell carcinomas are slow growing. These cancers develop in the acinar cells which produce saliva.

This type of tumour is more common in women than men.

Adenoid cystic cancers

About 15 out of every 100 salivary gland cancers (15%) are adenoid cystic cancers. They are the most common type of cancer that develops in the minor salivary glands.

They are usually slow growing (low grade).


Adenocarcinomas are rare cancers of the salivary gland. They develop in the epithelial cells – the lining cells of the body.

They can develop in the major or minor salivary glands.

Malignant mixed cancers

Malignant mixed cell cancers are similar to the most common benign tumour of the salivary gland (pleomorphic adenoma).

A small number of people who have a benign tumour go on to develop a malignant mixed cancer. This is also called carcinoma ex-PSA. 

Low grade polymorphous cancers

Polymorphous (pronounced polly-morf-us) just means that the cancerous tissue has a variety of different growth patterns when seen under a microscope. These are slow growing cancers.

Although very rare, they are the second most common cancer of the minor salivary glands. They are most common in people over the age of 70 years.

Other types

There are a number of other even rarer types of salivary gland cancer including:

  • squamous cell carcinoma
  • lymphoepithelioma
  • anaplastic carcinoma
  • poorly differentiated carcinoma
  • and other even rarer cancers

These tend to develop later in life and are usually fast growing cancers.

Last reviewed: 
24 Jun 2014
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