Salivary Gland Cancer: Follow-Up Care

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 05/2020

ON THIS PAGE: You will read about your medical care after cancer treatment is completed, and why this follow-up care is important. Use the menu to see other pages.

Care for people diagnosed with salivary gland cancer does not end when active treatment has finished. Your health care team will continue to check that the cancer has not come back, manage any side effects, and monitor your overall health. This is called follow-up care.

Your follow-up care may include regular physical examinations, medical tests, or both. Doctors want to keep track of your recovery in the months and years ahead. Diagnostic examinations, including CT scans, MRIs, and/or PET-CT scans, may be done to watch for potential recurrences or to monitor how well treatment is working starting 3 months after you finish treatment.

Follow-up imaging should be done every 6 to 12 months for the first 2 years after treatment. Most recurrences happen within the first 2 or 3 years after salivary gland cancer is diagnosed, so follow-up visits will be more frequent during that time. Between 3 and 5 years after treatment, your doctor will determine what follow-up imaging may be needed based on your symptoms and physical examinations. After 5 years post-treatment, you should continue seeing your doctor each year for a follow-up visit and certain people, including those diagnosed with higher risk disease, will get yearly chest CT scans.

Cancer rehabilitation may be recommended, and this could mean any of a wide range of services, such as physical therapy, career counseling, pain management, nutritional planning, and/or emotional counseling. The goal of rehabilitation is to help people regain control over many aspects of their lives and remain as independent and productive as possible. Learn more about cancer rehabilitation.

Learn more about the importance of follow-up care.

This information is based on the ISOO/MASCC/ASCO guideline, “Management of Salivary Gland Malignancy.” Please note that this link takes you to another ASCO website.

Watching for recurrence

One goal of follow-up care is to check for a recurrence, which means that the cancer has come back. Cancer recurs because small areas of cancer cells may remain undetected in the body. Over time, these cells may increase in number until they show up on test results or cause signs or symptoms.

People with a history of salivary gland cancer need to be monitored throughout their lifetime for the possibility of recurrence or distant metastasis.

During follow-up care, a doctor familiar with your medical history can give you personalized information about your risk of recurrence. Your doctor will ask specific questions about your health. Some people may have blood tests or imaging tests done as part of regular follow-up care, but testing recommendations depend on several factors, including the type and stage of cancer first diagnosed and the types of treatment given.

The anticipation before having a follow-up test or waiting for test results can add stress to you or a family member. This is sometimes called “scan-xiety.” Learn more about how to cope with this type of stress.

Managing long-term and late side effects

Most people expect to experience side effects when receiving treatment. However, it is often surprising to survivors that some side effects may linger beyond the treatment period. These are called long-term side effects. Other side effects called late effects may develop months or even years afterwards. Long-term and late effects can include both physical and emotional changes.

Talk with your doctor about your risk of developing such side effects based on the type of cancer, your individual treatment plan, and your overall health. If you had a treatment known to cause specific late effects, you may have certain physical examinations, scans, or blood tests to help find and manage them.

For people who had radiation therapy, regular ear examinations are necessary to remove dried earwax buildup. Prevention of dental cavities is also important. Fluoride application is recommended whenever radiation therapy is directed at the oral cavity (mouth) and the salivary glands.

Rehabilitation may be a major part of follow-up care after head-and-neck cancer treatment. People may need physical therapy and speech therapy to regain skills, such as talking and swallowing. Palliative care to manage symptoms and maintain nutrition during and after treatment may be recommended. Some people may need to learn new ways to eat or to have foods prepared differently. if there is nerve function loss, special care of the eye is necessary. Procedures such as moving a paralyzed vocal cord to improve voice may be necessary after a large skull-base tumor has been removed. If radiation therapy has been part of your treatment plan, avoid exposing the affected skin to direct sunlight.

After treatment for salivary gland cancer, people may look different, feel tired, and be unable to talk or eat the way they used to. Many people experience depression. The health care team can help people cope and connect them with support services.

Keeping personal health records

You and your doctor should work together to develop a personalized follow-up care plan. Be sure to discuss any concerns you have about your future physical or emotional health. ASCO offers forms to keep track of the cancer treatment you received and develop a survivorship care plan when treatment is completed.

This is also a good time to talk with your doctor about who will lead your follow-up care. Some survivors continue to see their oncologist, while others transition back to the care of their family doctor or another health care professional. This decision depends on several factors, including the type and stage of cancer, side effects, health insurance rules, and your personal preferences.

If a doctor who was not directly involved in your cancer care will lead your follow-up care, be sure to share your cancer treatment summary and survivorship care plan forms with them and with all future health care providers. Details about your cancer treatment are very valuable to the health care professionals who will care for you throughout your lifetime.

The next section in this guide is Survivorship. It describes how to cope with challenges in everyday life after a cancer diagnosis. Use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.