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Salivary gland tumours

AGE  More common over the age of 45GENDER  Not significant factors
LIFESTYLE  Not significant factorsGENETICS  Not significant factors

Tumours that affect the salivary glands are rare, particularly in people under the age of 45, but can be cancerous or noncancerous.

Salivary gland tumours
© DK
This swelling close to the ear and over the angle of the jawbone is caused by a noncancerous tumour of a salivary gland.

Three-quarters of salivary gland tumours occur in one of the two parotid salivary glands that lie behind the angles of the jaw. Only about 1 in 5 salivary gland tumours is cancerous.

The symptoms of a salivary gland tumour depend on whether or not it is a cancerous tumour, but in all cases there is a lump that may be felt either protruding inside the mouth or on the face. Noncancerous tumours are usually painless, rubbery in consistency, and mobile when touched. These benign tumours usually grow slowly.

Cancerous tumours of the salivary gland usually grow quickly, feel hard, and are sometimes painful. The facial nerve, which passes through the gland, may be affected as the cancer develops, leading to paralysis of part of the face (see Facial palsy). If the tumour is left untreated, the cancer may spread to nearby lymph nodes in the neck and from there to other parts of the body, such as the chest and liver.

What is the treatment?

Treatment for a noncancerous tumour of the parotid gland is an operation to remove the affected part of the gland. This is a very delicate procedure and there is a risk that the facial nerve may be damaged. If damage does occur, the mouth may droop as a result. The nerve sometimes recovers, but in other cases the damage may be permanent.

If a tumour is cancerous, all of the affected gland is removed. If the tumour has spread to the lymph nodes in the neck, these nodes may also need to be removed. After surgery, it may be necessary to perform radiotherapy to destroy remaining cancerous cells.

What is the prognosis?

Noncancerous tumours can usually be treated but may recur. Untreated, up to 1 in 10 become cancerous within 20 years.

Most people with cancerous tumours survive for more than 5 years after diagnosis. However, the earlier the diagnosis and treatment, the greater the chance of a cure. If the disease spreads beyond the salivary glands, it may be fatal.

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