What is salivary gland cancer?

Salivary gland cancer is a rare type of head and neck cancer. It starts in one of the salivary glands. There are several different salivary glands inside and near your mouth. Most tumours that start in the salivary glands are non cancerous (benign) but some are cancerous. 

The salivary glands

The salivary glands make spit (saliva). Saliva helps us to:

  • keep our mouth and throat moist
  • swallow food
  • digest food
  • protect against infections in the mouth and throat
  • protect our teeth

There are two main types of salivary glands called the:

  • major salivary glands
  • minor salivary glands

Major 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

Minor 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.

The cells of the salivary glands

There are a number of different types of cells in the salivary glands. Cancer can start in any of these cells.

Your exact type of salivary gland cancer will depend on which cell type your cancer started in.

How common is it?

Salivary gland cancer is a very rare cancer. Around 720 people are diagnosed with salivary gland cancer in the UK every year. It is slightly more common in men than women. 

We don’t know what causes salivary gland cancer but several factors can increase your risk.

  • Cancer Incidence from Cancer Intelligence Statistical Information Team at Cancer Research UK (2017 - 2019 UK average) 
    Accessed March 2023

  • NCCN Guidelines Insights: Head and Neck Cancers, Version 1.2022
    J Caudell and others
    Journal of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, 2022. Vol 20, Issue 3, Pages 224-234

  • Principles and practice of oncology (12th edition)
    VT De Vita, S Hellman and SA Rosenberg
    Lipponcott, Wiliams and Wilkins, 2023

  • Textbook of uncommon cancer (5th edition)
    D Raghavan and others
    Wiley - Blackwell 2017

Last reviewed: 
20 Mar 2023
Next review due: 
20 Mar 2026

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