Learn more about the salivary glands and how they work with this 3D animation.

What is salivary gland cancer?

Cancer occurs when cells become abnormal, grow uncontrollably and have the potential to spread to other parts of the body. These cells build up to form a mass (or lump). 
Most salivary gland tumours are not life threatening (malignant) and are called benign tumours. Some benign tumours can become malignant over time. Most salivary gland cancers are found in the parotid glands. The parotid glands contain glands of the immune system (lymph nodes).
Cancer of the parotid glands may either start:
  • in the salivary gland tissue (called a primary parotid cancer)
  • in the skin and then spread to the lymph nodes in the parotid glands (called a secondary or metastatic cancer).

A small number of salivary gland cancers start in the submandibular, sublingual and minor salivary glands lining the mouth and throat.

There are many different types of primary salivary gland cancer. Each of these cancer types behave differently. Some high-grade salivary tumours spread along nerves  orto lymph nodes and to other parts of the body. Low-grade tumours are less likely to spread.

What causes salivary gland cancer?

Doctors often can’t explain why a person gets cancer. However, factors that may increase the risk of salivary gland cancer include:

Age - most salivary gland cancers occur in people aged over 50 years

Exposure of the head and neck to radiation therapy

Autoimmune diseases – these can lead to a type of cancer in the salivary glands called lymphoma

Skin cancers can spread to lymph nodes in the salivary glands

Other factors, such as using mobile phones and exposure to industrial chemicals, have not been proven to increase the risk of salivary gland cancer.