Notice: Users may be experiencing issues with displaying some pages on stanfordhealthcare.org. We are working closely with our technical teams to resolve the issue as quickly as possible. Thank you for your patience.
Primary cancers of the salivary gland are uncommon, but not rare. Just as a benign tumor does, they often present as a painless enlarging mass that may or may not be associated with neck lymph node metastases.
About 20% of parotid tumors are malignant, with higher percentages for children, for the submandibular gland, and for intraoral minor salivary glands.
Diagnosing salivary gland cancer
A diagnosis is generally made possible via a fine needle biopsy (FNA). Imaging (MRI) helps define its extent in the neck.
A PET-CT or chest CT may be ordered to assess for distant spread. The stage is defined by the size of the tumor, presence of neck metastases, presence of distant spread (uncommon for most tumors) and whether there is facial weakness.
Broadly speaking, salivary gland malignancies are grouped into low grade and high grade cancers. Low grade cancers have a very good prognosis, and are often cured with surgery alone. Long-term follow-up is required need to ensure early intervention should there be a recurrence, which can occur years later.
The pathologies listed below are among the more common malignancies seen. They may arise from the parotid, submandibular gland or minor salivary glands. In some instances a cancer in the parotid may have actually spread to an intraparotid lymph node from elsewhere (such as from a facial skin squamous cell carcinoma or a melanoma) or such a metastasis may rarely even arise from farther away. Rarely a tumors may be malignant transformation from a prior benign tumor (as in a carcinoma arising within a prior benign pleomorphic adenoma).
Low grade tumors:
Acinic cell adenocarcinoma
Low grade mucoepidermoid carcinoma (some also describe an intermediate grade, which largely behaves similarly)
Lymphoma arising within gland or involve periparotid lymph nodes
Treatment for salivary gland cancers
Intervention usually require surgery as first step. A low grade small malignancy may require only surgery, with surgery as described for benign parotid tumors. If in the submandibular gland, the gland is removed; likely along with upper neck nodes, a procedure with few likely side effects. A neck dissection (removal of nodes in the neck) will be done if nodes are involved in either a parotid or submandibular gland malignancy and may be recommended for some high grade tumors where the nodes are at risk.
Irradiation after surgery is recommended for larger low grade malignancies (greater than 4 cm.) and all high grade malignant tumors. Irradiation may include the neck nodes on the same side of the malignancy if either there were nodes involved or nodes are at risk for developing metastases. Chemotherapy may play a role as a radiosensitizer or when there is distant spread. Chemotherapy as a radiosensitizer (making the irradiation possibly more effective) may be discussed within a clinical trial.
Individualized treatments options are tailored for each patient, including the applicability of available clinical trials, and are then discussed with each patient.
As with low grade cancers, long-term follow-up is required need to facilitate consideration of intervention should there be a recurrence in the neck of a distant metastasis.
We treat all salivary cancers, including patients that have failed prior treatments. In revision parotid cancers that have been previously radiated, intraoperative radiotherapy may be indicated (irradiation to the area of concern done at the time of surgery, such that the skin in not irradiated and critical structures may at times be able to be shielded).
Facial nerve reconstruction
Reconstruction after parotid cancer surgery is an important aspect of any cancer surgery.
The face is important to a person's identity. Patients with facial nerve paralysis as a result of a high-grade salivary cancer receive facial nerve reconstruction at the time of their cancer surgery.
Facial nerve reconstruction options include:
Gold or platinum implant to the upper eyelid
Lower eyelid tightening
Static lower face sling
Masseter transfer to the lower face
Temporalis muscle transfer to the lower face
Facial nerve grafting
To restore volume loss (cheek hallowing) after parotid surgery, we offer the following reconstructive techniques:
Clinical trials are research studies that evaluate a new medical approach, device, drug, or other treatment. As a Stanford Health Care patient, you may have access to the latest, advanced clinical trials.
Open trials refer to studies currently accepting participants. Closed trials are not currently enrolling, but may open in the future.