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Types of treatment for salivary gland cancer

Men and women discussing salivary gland cancer

This page tells you about the main treatments for salivary gland cancer. There is information about

 

A quick guide to what’s on this page

Types of treatment for salivary gland cancer

When your doctor plans your treatment they take into account the type of salivary gland cancer you have, the stage, your general health and the impact treatment will have on your speech, chewing and swallowing.

The most common treatment is surgery but you may have radiotherapy or chemotherapy or a combination or two or three treatments.

Surgery

The type of operation you have depends on the size of the cancer when you are diagnosed and its position in the gland. Surgery works very well for early stage cancers. If it is in the deeper part of the gland, it may be harder to remove than a tumour nearer the body surface.

Your surgeon may also remove the lymph nodes in your neck.

Radiotherapy

Radiotherapy uses high energy rays to kill cancer cells. Your doctor may recommend that you have radiotherapy after surgery. Or if it is not possible to remove your cancer surgically, you may have radiotherapy as your main treatment.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy uses anti cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to disrupt and kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy is not a common treatment for salivary gland cancer. It doesn’t work as well as surgery and radiotherapy for this type of cancer. But you may have chemotherapy if your cancer is advanced or has already spread to other parts of the body or your cancer has come back after radiotherapy or surgery.

 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the Treating salivary gland cancer section.

 

 

The main treatments

As with many types of cancer, diagnosing your salivary gland cancer early means it will be easier to control and possibly cure it. For salivary gland cancer, you may have

You may have one or more of these treatments. Your doctor will plan your treatment according to

  • The type of salivary gland cancer you have
  • Whether the cancer has spread (the stage)
  • What the cells look like under a microscope (the grade)
  • How the treatment will affect your speech, chewing and swallowing
  • Your general health and fitness

Surgery alone will cure some salivary gland cancers. For other cancers a combination of surgery and radiotherapy will work better. Doctors may use chemotherapy to control more advanced cancers, or as part of a clinical trial.

Don't be afraid to ask your doctor or nurse any questions you have about your treatment. It often helps to write down a list of questions you want to ask. You could also take a close friend or relative with you when you go to see the doctor – they can help you remember what was said.

 

Surgery

Surgery is the most common treatment for salivary gland tumours. It works very well for early stage cancers.

The type of operation you have depends on the size of the cancer when you are diagnosed and on where it is in the gland. If it is in the deeper part of the gland, it may be harder to remove than a tumour nearer the body surface. It also depends on whether there is a risk that the cancer is in the lymph nodes around your salivary gland or in your neck.

During your operation, the surgeon will examine the area around your cancer. They may remove some of the lymph nodes nearest to your tumour. This is called a selective neck dissection. Your doctor does this to help stage your cancer and get rid of any remaining cancer cells. This reduces the risk of the cancer coming back in the lymph nodes.

If your cancer has already spread to lymph nodes in your neck, then your surgeon is likely to remove all the nodes on one or both sides of your neck. You may hear your doctor call this operation a modified radical neck dissection.

There is more about surgery for salivary gland cancer in this section.

 

Radiotherapy

Radiotherapy uses high energy rays to kill cancer cells. Your doctor may recommend that you have radiotherapy after surgery. This helps to kill off any cancer cells that might have been left behind and reduces the risk of the cancer coming back.

If it isn’t possible to remove your cancer surgically, you may have radiotherapy as your main treatment. You may not be able to have surgery because

  • The position of your tumour makes it difficult to reach
  • You have other illnesses or conditions that mean a long anaesthetic is not suitable for you
  • The cancer is advanced and can’t be completely removed

There is more about this type of treatment in our section about radiotherapy for salivary gland cancer.

 

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy uses anti cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to disrupt and kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy is not a common treatment for salivary gland cancer. It doesn’t work as well as surgery and radiotherapy for this type of cancer. But you may have chemotherapy

  • To treat advanced cancers, or those that have spread to other parts of your body
  • If your cancer has come back after surgery and radiotherapy
  • As part of a clinical trial

There is detailed information about this type of treatment, the drugs doctors use and their side effects, in our section about chemotherapy for salivary gland cancer.

 

Treating advanced cancer

If your cancer has already spread to another part of your body, using surgery to remove the tumour in your salivary gland will not cure your cancer. But surgery may still help to control your symptoms and disease. For example, if your tumour is large, your doctor may recommend surgery to remove all or part of the tumour and help relieve symptoms. They may also suggest radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

 

Second opinions

Some people like to get an opinion from a second doctor before they decide about their treatment. If you would like a second opinion, you can ask your specialist or your GP. It can be better to arrange a second opinion through your specialist because then they can send all your notes and test results with you.

Do remember that a second opinion does not always mean that the second doctor will take over your care. Your treatment may still be managed by your original specialist.

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Updated: 26 June 2014