Salivary Gland Cancer Treatment

Specialists at the Penn Center for Head and Neck Cancer are leaders in treating all types of salivary gland cancers. Our experts have pioneered many of the latest surgical and non-surgical techniques to treat major and minor salivary gland cancer.

Because salivary gland cancers make up only six percent of all head and neck cancers, it's important to receive care from a center that has expertise diagnosing and treating these rare tumors. Our breadth of experience treating even the most difficult salivary gland cancer cases will ensure you receive the best possible outcome.

Treatment will be different depending on the type of cancer you have. Salivary gland cancer may be treated with TORS (TransOral Robotic Surgery), which is the world's first minimally invasive robotic surgery technique developed by Penn experts that enables surgeons to remove benign and malignant tumors of the mouth and throat. 

Treatment of Salivary Gland Cancer by Type

Treatment of salivary gland cancers by type includes:

  • Adenocarcinoma: Adenocarcinoma of the oropharynx is usually treated with TORS followed by radiation therapy with or without chemotherapy. Surgery will involve removal of the tumor from the oropharynx, and in some cases will involve removal of lymph nodes from areas of the neck.
  • Adenoid cystic carcinoma (ACC): ACC of the oropharynx (base of tongue, tonsils, and soft palate) is usually treated with TORS followed by radiation therapy.
  • Mucoepidermoid carcinoma: Mucoepidermoid carcinoma of the oropharynx is usually treated with TORS followed by radiation therapy.

Surgery to Treat Salivary Gland Cancer

Types of surgery used to treat salivary gland cancer include:

Endoscopic Surgery

Penn surgeons perform minimally invasive surgery using endoscopy. Endoscopy is a procedure that allows doctors to view the inside of the nose or larynx with an endoscope. Endoscopic surgery may be performed when a salivary gland cancer develops in the paranasal area. 

Neck Dissection

Salivary gland cancers can spread to lymph nodes in the neck. Surgery may be required to remove nodes which are at risk of harboring cancer or which have been proven to contain cancer. This is called neck dissection. A neck dissection may also be performed to biopsy lymph nodes that doctors suspect are cancerous.

A neck dissection is when the surgeon examines all of the critical structures in the neck and removes lymph nodes from the neck. This may be performed if the doctor suspects that the cancer has spread. A neck dissection may cause numbness of the ear, weakness when raising the arm above the head, and weakness of the lower lip. These side effects are caused by injury to nerves in the area. Depending on the type of neck dissection, weakness of the lower lip and arm may go away in a few months. Weakness will be permanent if a nerve is removed as part of the dissection.

Parotidectomy

Many salivary gland cancers develop in the parotid glands, they can also grow in the "parapharyngeal space," a deep part of the neck next to the throat.

A parotidectomy is a type of surgery performed to remove the parotid glands. A parotidectomy can be complicated because it involves the facial nerve. There are two types of parotidectomy:

  • Superficial parotidectomy: Many salivary gland cancers start in a part of the parotid gland called the superficial lobe. A superficial parotidectomy is the removal of just this lobe.
  • Total parotidectomy: A total parotidectomy involves removal of the entire parotid gland, including facial nerves. Reconstructive surgery may be needed to help repair nerve damage and other tissues that needed to be removed.
The removal of the parotid gland is called a parotidectomy. This surgery may involve the facial nerve. If cancer has spread to the facial nerve, frequently a nerve graft is necessary for the person to regain use of some facial muscles. Any tissue that is removed can often be restored through reconstructive surgery and tissue transplantation.
  • Reconstructive surgery: Reconstructive surgery may be used to replace tissue and nerves that were removed during surgery to eliminate the cancer.