For rare cancers, like those that affect the salivary glands, it can be difficult to find an experienced team of physicians who are on top of the most up-to-date treatments. At UChicago Medicine’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, our expert specialists are internationally renowned for their ability to effectively diagnose and treat head and neck cancers, including those that affect the salivary glands.
Our goal is to successfully treat your cancer while ensuring you have the best possible quality of life during and after treatment. Your treatment plan will depend on various factors, including the type and location of your salivary gland cancer and your own treatment preferences.
Salivary gland cancers are often treated with surgery. However, some salivary gland cancers, including advanced or recurring cancers, may benefit from radiation therapy and chemotherapy or other drug therapies. UChicago Medicine offers more clinical trials of treatments for patients with head and neck cancer than any other hospital in the Chicago area. That means our patients have access to novel therapies for salivary gland cancers.
The salivary glands make saliva, which your mouth uses to digest food and fight off infections. The glands are located in various places inside and near your mouth:
- The major salivary glands: You have three different sets of major glands on each side of your face:
- Parotid glands: Located near the ears
- Submandibular glands: Near your jaw
- Sublingual glands: Under the floor of your mouth
- The minor salivary glands: You also have hundreds of microscopic glands located around the mouth and throat area.
About 70 percent of salivary gland tumors form in the parotid glands, and approximately 15 percent form in submandibular glands. Tumors in other glands are more rare.
Many salivary gland tumors are benign, or not cancerous. Benign salivary gland tumors are treated differently than cancerous ones.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
Symptoms of salivary gland tumors may include the following:
- Chronic pain, or a lump, in the neck, jaw, mouth or cheek
- Numbness or weakness in the face
- Difficulty opening your mouth or swallowing
More than two dozen types of cancer can affect the salivary glands, including mucoepidermoid carcinoma, adenoid cystic carcinoma, and adenocarcinomas. Your treatment will depend, in part, on the type of cancer you have and how advanced it is. Diagnostic accuracy is essential, and our pathologists specialize in determining which subtype of cancer you have.
If your tumor is cancerous, our team of experts—which includes head and neck surgical oncologists, radiation oncologists, medical oncologists, speech pathologists and others—will discuss how to treat your cancer with the fewest side effects possible. By combining our expertise, we can better determine the best way to achieve these treatment goals.
Depending on your specific cancer diagnosis, as well as your treatment preferences, your care plan may include some or all of the following:
The type of surgery used to treat salivary gland cancers depends on where the cancer is located.
- Parotid gland surgery: The parotid glands are the largest salivary glands. If the cancer only affects the outside part of the parotid gland (known as the superficial lobe), then the surgeon will only need to remove that lobe. However, if the cancer has spread throughout the parotid gland, then the entire gland will need to be removed along with any nearby tissues where the cancer has grown.
- Submandibular and sublingual gland surgery: These glands are much smaller than the parotid glands. When cancer is in either a submandibular or sublingual gland, the surgeon will typically remove the entire gland.
- Minor salivary gland surgery: The surgery will depend on which minor salivary glands are affected. The surgeon will remove the cancer along with some nearby tissue.
Our head and neck surgical oncologists are experts at operating on the face and neck. Our primary goal is to remove the cancerous tumor, along with a small amount of tissue around it to prevent the cancer from coming back. But our surgeons also aim to prevent any functional losses after the surgery. The areas around the salivary gland contain various nerves and structures that you use to smile and close your eyes. Our surgeons are highly experienced at removing cancerous tumors and tissue while taking care to avoid harming facial nerves and structures whenever possible.
UChicago Medicine plastic and reconstructive surgeons work closely with our head and neck surgeons. Our surgical team is highly experienced in facial and oral cavity reconstruction to restore any speech, eating and swallowing function, as well as any cosmetic concerns you may have.
Some patients with salivary gland cancer, such as those with advanced or recurring cancers, may benefit from drug therapies, including novel therapies offered through clinical trials.
- Chemotherapy, or cancer-fighting drugs, may be recommended either alone or with radiation.
- Immunotherapies, such as checkpoint inhibitors, can help the body’s own immune system fight the cancer.
- Targeted drug therapies, such as monoclonal antibodies, block certain proteins in the body that help cancer cells grow.
- Hormone therapies may be recommended for some salivary gland cancers. These experimental treatments are not yet approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Convenient Locations for Cancer Care
You can also make an appointment with our providers by:
– Scheduling a virtual video visit to see a provider from the comfort of your home
– Newly diagnosed patients can schedule a 15-minute introductory Express Expert Cancer Opinion virtual session at no cost
– Requesting an online second opinion from our specialists
To speak to someone directly, please call 1-855-702-8222. If you have symptoms of an urgent nature, please call your doctor or go to the emergency room immediately.
For Referring Physicians
To refer a patient for head and neck cancer care, please call UCM Physician Connect at 1-800-824-2282.
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