Salivary gland cancer is a type of head and neck cancer that starts in one of the three sets of salivary glands. Even if cancer spreads to other parts of the body, it is still referred to as salivary gland cancer. Most of the time, salivary gland cancer starts in the parotid glands—the largest salivary glands which are located in front of the ears. 10-20% of the time, cancer will begin in the submandibular glands, which are located below the jaw. It is very rare that salivary gland cancer will start in the sublingual glands, which are the smallest salivary glands, located on the floor of the mouth. This type of cancer is very rare, accounting for less than 1 percent of all cancers, with an estimated 2,000-2,500 people affected annually in the United States.
A person with salivary gland cancer may have a noticeable lump on one side of their face or neck. The lump may not be painful at all, but in most cases, it does indicate a growth. According to the Mayo Clinic, most salivary gland tumors are noncancerous (benign), although they may lead to other complications like infection or a stone in the salivary gland duct.
Numbness is a sign that there is damage, irritation, or compression of the nerves. One reason a person with salivary gland cancer may experience numbness is if cancer has spread to the nerves. Alternatively, the tumor in the salivary gland may be putting pressure on the nerves, cutting off feeling from that part of the face. Numbness across one or both sides of the face calls for an immediate visit to the doctor. There are many other reasons a person may be experiencing numbness in the face. Some are more serious, some less, but the cause should undoubtedly be investigated.
Usually, this type of cancer is identified by a lump or swelling near the jaw which is not accompanied by pain. Sometimes, the growth can become big enough to cause discomfort in the jaw or neck. The stage of cancer depends on the size and location of the cancer growth. The earlier it is detected, the better the prognosis. If you detect a foreign growth—on any part of the body—don't wait until it becomes bigger and more painful. See a doctor immediately for the best treatment possible.
Muscle weakness is another sign that cancer has spread to the nerves, or that the tumor is interfering with nerve signaling. This may present as being able to smile or display expression on one side of the face and not the other—also referred to as facial palsy. Those who are familiar with the effects of a stroke may see a resemblance in symptoms.
One common symptom of head and neck cancer is dysphagia—or swallowing dysfunction. A patient may present with dysphagia even before treatment begins. It often gets worse with treatment such as surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy. This symptom can have a great impact on a cancer patient's life before, during, and after treatment. Many head and neck cancer patients will go through rehabilitative therapy because of this, as well as require a feeding tube even one-year post-treatment.
If the tumor has grown big, it can change the shape or size of the affected side. There are many things which can cause swelling of the face. This symptom alone should not cause a person to jump to conclusions too quickly. However, if the swelling persists, if the difference in size or shape is significant, or if it is painful, consult a doctor.
A tumor in the salivary gland can affect the movement of the jaw, inhibiting a person from opening their mouth widely. It is not clear what causes salivary gland cancer. Risk factors include older age, radiation exposure, or exposure to certain toxic substances—in particular for those working in rubber manufacturing, asbestos mining, and plumbing.
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