Salivary gland cancer is most likely to begin in the parotid gland, but especially if left untreated it may spread to the lymph nodes, lungs, and bones.

Salivary gland cancers often begin in the parotid gland, but they can quickly spread to other portions of the body like the lymph nodes and lungs when left untreated.

This type of cancer is most common in older adults, but it can affect people of any age.

It’s important to alert a doctor if you have lumps, facial numbness, or trouble swallowing.

Your doctor may suggest surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation to prevent salivary gland cancer from spreading to other parts of the body.

According to a 2016 study, approximately 20% of salivary gland cancer cases will metastasize to distant parts of the body.

Cancer may travel to other parts of the body through the tissues, blood, or the lymph system.

From the salivary glands, cancer is most likely to spread to:

  • lungs
  • lymph nodes in the neck
  • spaces around the nerves in the face
  • soft tissues like the nerves and blood vessels
  • liver
  • bones
  • brain

Salivary gland cancer most frequently originates in the parotid gland, which is the largest salivary gland located just in front of the ears.

But research indicates that distant metabolism is more common with tumors that develop in the submandibular gland.

Salivary gland cancer makes up about 6–8% of head and neck cancers. Mucoepidermoid carcinoma is the most common type of salivary gland cancer.

You are more likely to experience salivary gland cancer if you’re exposed to certain types of radiation as a part of your work or have previously undergone head and neck radiation treatments.

Although salivary gland cancer can affect individuals of any age, it’s most likely to occur in older individuals. The average age of diagnosis is 55 years old.

Symptoms of salivary gland cancer can include:

  • facial numbness
  • a lump in the cheek, mouth, or jaw
  • pins and needles or burning sensations in your face
  • trouble swallowing or opening your mouth
  • fluid draining out of your ear

If cancer has spread to other portions of the body, you may begin to experience additional symptoms. These could include:

  • shortness of breath (spread to the lungs)
  • jaundice (spread to the liver)
  • headaches and seizures (spread to the brain)

The overall 5-year survival rate for malignant salivary gland tumors is approximately 70%.

When salivary gland cancer is diagnosed in Stage I and has not yet spread to other portions of the body, the 5-year survival rate is 91%.

But after salivary gland cancer has had more time to grow in spread, the survival rate for salivary cancer diagnosed in Stage III or Stage IV is only 39 and 65%, respectively.

Everyone’s experience with cancer is unique though, and your personal outlook with salivary gland cancer may be affected by:

  • age and general health
  • the exact type of salivary gland cancer you have
  • whether it has spread to other parts of the body
  • size and location of any tumors
  • how your body responds to treatments

Although the majority of salivary gland tumors aren’t cancerous and do not spread to other portions of the body, salivary gland cancer can be terminal.

When salivary gland cancer is untreated and spreads to other portions of the body, it’s more likely to be life threatening.

Treatment for salivary gland cancer may include a combination of:

Your doctor will take many factors into account when determining the best treatment plan for you including:

  • your age
  • your health
  • specifics about the tumor
  • how you respond to treatment

Salivary gland cancer is most likely to originate in the parotid gland, but from the salivary glands, it may spread to other portions of the body including the lymph nodes and lungs.

If you have signs of salivary gland cancer like facial lumps and numbness or have trouble swallowing, it’s important to let your doctor know.

Your doctor may suggest a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation to treat and prevent the spread of salivary gland cancer.

When salivary gland cancer is diagnosed and treated before it spreads to nearby organs, the outlook is typically more positive.