Cancer Research UK on Google+ Cancer Research UK on Facebook Cancer Research UK on Twitter
 

A quick guide to what’s on this page

Types of salivary gland cancer

The salivary glands are made up of a number of different types of cells. The type of cancer you have is named after the type of cell the cancer started in. This means that your doctor will tell you which salivary gland your cancer started in – the parotid, submandibular, sublingual or minor salivary glands. They will also tell you the type of cell it started from.

Most tumours of the salivary glands are not cancer but are benign. The symptoms you get from them are very similar to cancers of the salivary gland.

  • Mucoepidermoid cancers are the most common type of cancer of the salivary glands – they start in the lining of the salivary glands
  • Acinic cancers develop in the cells which produce saliva
  • Adenoid cystic cancers are the most common type of cancer of the minor salivary glands

Other rarer types of cancer of salivary glands include adenocarcinomas, malignant mixed cell, low grade polymorphous cancers, squamous cell carcinoma, lymphoepithelioma, anaplastic carcinoma and poorly differentiated carcinoma.

 

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

 

 

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. And mucoepidermoid cells that 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. So your doctor will tell you which salivary gland is affected and the cell type.

 

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.

 

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 – your doctor may say the cancer is low grade.

 

Adenocarcinoma

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. 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.

Rate this page:
Submit rating

 

Rated 5 out of 5 based on 8 votes
Rate this page
Rate this page for no comments box
Please enter feedback to continue submitting
Send feedback
Question about cancer? Contact our information nurse team

No Error

Updated: 24 June 2014