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Risks and causes of salivary gland cancer

Men and women discussing salivary gland cancer

This page has information about the risks and causes of salivary gland cancer. There is information about

 

A quick guide to what’s on this page

Risks and causes of salivary gland cancer

Salivary gland cancer is rare in the UK. We don’t know what causes it but there are several factors that can increase your risk.

Risk factors for salivary gland cancer include

  • Age – your risk of getting salivary gland cancer increases with age. Most people who develop it are in their 50s and 60s
  • Being exposed to radiation – your risk is higher if you have been exposed to radiation either in the environment or as part of treatment for another type of cancer
  • Human papilloma virus (HPV) – doctors have found HPV in some salivary gland cancers and think that this may increase the risk of people developing this type of cancer
  • Family history – your risk of getting salivary gland cancer increases if someone else in your family has had it. This may be due to shared lifestyle choices and not necessarily to do with a genetic link
  • Previous skin cancer – if you have had a squamous cell skin cancer in the past you have a slightly increased risk of salivary gland cancer

 

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How common is salivary gland cancer

Salivary gland cancer is a rare cancer. About 690 people are diagnosed in the UK each year. It is slightly more common in men than women. The number of people getting salivary cancer has slowly increased in the last few years. We don’t know what causes salivary gland cancer but several factors can increase your risk.

 

What is a risk factor?

Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is a risk factor. Different cancers have different risk factors. Even if you have more than one risk factor it doesn’t mean you will definitely get a disease. And just because researchers investigate something, that doesn't mean it will turn out to be a risk factor.

 

Age

Your risk of getting salivary gland cancer increases as you get older. Most people who develop it are in their 50s or 60s. But remember, the risk is still small because this is a rare cancer.

 

Being exposed to radiation

You are at higher risk of developing salivary gland cancer if you have been exposed to radiation. This may be because you had radiotherapy to your head or neck for another type of cancer. Or you may have come into contact with radioactive substances through your work. If you have childhood cancer and are treated with radiotherapy you may have an increased risk of salivary gland cancer for at least 20 years after treatment.

 

Previous skin cancer

If you have had a squamous cell skin cancer in the past you have a slightly increased risk of cancer of the salivary glands.

 

Smoking tobacco

If you smoke tobacco you may increase your risk of cancer of the salivary gland. Giving up smoking can reduce your risk of developing this and many other types of cancer.

 

Family history

If someone else in your family has had salivary gland cancer, your chances of getting it yourself are increased.This may be due to lifestyle factors that are common within families and not necessarily anything to do with a genetic link. Do also remember that your risk is still likely to be small, because salivary gland cancer is so rare.

 

Human papilloma virus (HPV)

Researchers have found the human papilloma virus (HPV) in some types of salivary gland cancer. This suggests that this common virus may be involved in the development of this type of cancer. We need more research to confirm this.

 

Mobile phones

Researchers are investigating mobile phones to see how much low level (non ionising) radiation they produce. From the evidence we have so far, we still can't say that mobile phones are a problem to health. A review conducted by the journal Bandolier found no convincing evidence that mobile phone use was linked to any type of cancer in the head. But the review decided that we cannot know what the long term effects are yet.

A large study in Israel looked into the link between using a mobile phone and parotid gland tumours. This study was looking at the risk of benign and cancerous tumours. The researchers found that for the group as a whole there wasn’t an increased risk. But they did find a slight increase in risk for people who had been long term, heavy phone users and lived in a rural area. The tumours tended to develop on the side of the head where the person most commonly used the mobile phone. There are some problems with this research. The researchers relied on people remembering how much they used their phone and the side of the head they used it. This can mean the results are less reliable as it can be difficult for people to remember accurately what they did 10 years ago. The researchers say they need more research into the long term effects of using a mobile phone.

A report from Norway says we still do not have enough information to show whether mobile phones increase the risk of salivary gland cancer.

The Government's advisory group advises that we use mobile phones for as short a time as possible and preferably with a hands free kit. There is no evidence that mobile phones are damaging to children. But they advise that children under 16 don’t use them as we don’t know what the long term effects are. If you are concerned, the Health Protection Agency Radiation Protection Division have some useful information on mobile phones that you may find helpful. (If this link doesn’t work, go to www.hpa.org.uk and search their site for mobile phones). 

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Updated: 27 March 2017