Salivary Gland Cancer: Introduction

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 11/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will find some basic information about this disease and the parts of the body it may affect. This is the first page of Cancer.Net’s Guide to Salivary Gland Cancer. To see other pages, use the menu. Think of that menu as a roadmap to this full guide.  

About the salivary glands

The salivary glands contain tissues that produce saliva. Saliva is important to the body because it:

  • Helps keep the mouth moist

  • Contains enzymes that begin breaking down food

  • Helps prevent infections of the mouth and throat

There are clusters of salivary glands in several places in the head and neck. Doctors often refer to 3 pairs of salivary glands as the major salivary glands.

  • Parotid glands. These are the largest salivary glands. They are located on both sides 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.

There are also smaller clusters of salivary glands, called minor salivary glands. These include salivary glands in:

  • The area of the upper jaw along the inside of the teeth and the soft palate

  • Parts of the tissue that line the upper digestive tract, known as the mucosa

  • The windpipe

About salivary gland cancer

Salivary gland cancer is 1 of the 5 main types of cancer in the head and neck region, a grouping called head and neck cancer. Cancer begins when healthy cells change and grow out of control, forming a mass of tissue called a tumor. A tumor can be cancerous or benign. A cancerous tumor is malignant, meaning it can grow and spread to other parts of the body. A benign tumor means the tumor can grow but will not spread.

Both benign and cancerous tumors can begin in any of the major or minor salivary glands. Most of the tumors (80%) that develop in the parotid gland, and about half of the tumors in the submandibular gland, are benign. Sublingual gland tumors are frequently 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. The classification of subtype depends on the type of cell where the tumor started and an evaluation of tumor cells under a microscope (see Subtypes).

This section covers primary salivary gland cancer, which is cancer that begins in the salivary glands. Sometimes another type of cancer, usually melanoma or other types of skin cancers, can spread to the salivary glands or to the nearby lymph nodes located inside and surrounding the parotid gland and next to the submandibular gland. Lymph nodes are tiny, bean-shaped organs that fight infection. For more information about cancer that started in another part of the body and then spread to the salivary glands, please see the Cancer.Net guide for that type of cancer.

Looking for More of an Introduction?

If you would like more of an introduction, explore these related items. Please note that these links will take you to other sections on Cancer.Net:

  • ASCO Answers Fact Sheet: Read a 1-page fact sheet that offers an introduction to head and neck cancer. This fact sheet is available as a PDF, so it is easy to print out.

  • Cancer.Net Blog: Read an ASCO expert’s opinion about what newly diagnosed patients should know about head and neck cancer.

  • Cancer.Net Patient Education Video: View a short video led by an ASCO expert in head and neck cancers that provides basic information and areas of research.

The next section in this guide is Statistics. It helps explain how many people are diagnosed with this disease and general survival rates. Or, use the menu to choose another section to continue reading this guide.