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About the salivary glands
The body’s salivary glands are tissues that produce saliva. Saliva is the fluid that is released into the mouth to keep it moist and contains enzymes that begin breaking down food. Saliva also helps prevent infections of the mouth and throat.
There are clusters of salivary glands in several places in the head and neck, including below the tongue, on the sides of the face (in the cheek area) just in front of the ears, in the area of the upper jaw along the inside of the teeth and the soft palate, and under the jawbone. There are also smaller clusters of salivary glands in parts of the upper digestive tract mucosa (tissue lining) and the windpipe.
Doctors often refer to three pairs of salivary glands as the major salivary glands:
- Parotid glands. These are the largest salivary glands and are found on either side of the face in front of the ears.
- Submandibular glands. These are found under the jawbone.
- Sublingual glands. These are found in the bottom of the mouth under the tongue.
As described above, there are many other, smaller areas that contain salivary glands; these are often called the minor salivary glands.
About salivary gland cancer
Cancer begins when normal cells change and grow uncontrollably, forming a mass of tissue called a tumor. A tumor can be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous, meaning it can spread to other parts of the body).
A tumor (benign or cancerous) can begin in any of the major or minor salivary glands. Most tumors (80%) in the parotid gland, and about half of the tumors in the submandibular gland, are benign. Sublingual gland tumors are almost always cancerous. Most cancerous tumors of this type begin in the parotid gland or in the submandibular glands.
There are many subtypes of salivary gland tumors, depending on the type of cell where it started and an evaluation of tumor cells under a microscope. This is covered in more detail in Stages.
This section covers primary salivary gland cancer, which is cancer that begins in the salivary glands. Sometimes, another type of cancer (most commonly melanoma or another skin cancer) can spread to the salivary glands or the nearby lymph nodes (tiny, bean-shaped organs that fight infection) located inside and surrounding the parotid gland and next to the submandibular gland. For more information about cancer that started in another part of the body and then spread to the salivary glands, please see Cancer.Net’s guide for that type of cancer.
Salivary gland cancer is one of the five main types of cancer in the head and neck region, a grouping called head and neck cancer.
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