Types of Salivary Gland Cancer

Which type of salivary gland cancer you have depends on the type of cell where the cancer began. There are many different types of cells in the salivary glands, so there are many different types of salivary gland cancer.

When you receive a diagnosis of salivary gland cancer, your doctor will tell you which type you have. You will also find out which which salivary glands are affected and whether the cancer is fast growing (high-grade salivary gland cancer) or slow growing (low-grade salivary gland cancer).

Here you can find more information on the different types of salivary gland cancers.

Mucoepidermoid Carcinoma

Mucoepidermoid carcinoma is the most common type of salivary gland cancer. More than 30 percent of salivary gland cancers are thought to be this type.

Cancers that develop here often form tiny mucous-filled cysts. Most mucoepidermoid carcinomas develop in the parotid glands. They can also develop in the submandibular glands as well as the minor salivary glands.

Mucoepidermoid cancers are typically slow growing (low grade), but they can be fast growing (high grade) as well. Common symptoms of mucoepidermoid carcinoma include facial paralysis, pain, ear drainage, difficulty swallowing, and difficulty opening your mouth.

Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma

Adenoid cystic carcinoma is a slow-growing but aggressive cancer. It is more likely to come back after initial treatment than other salivary gland cancers. It is the most common type of cancer to develop in the minor salivary glands. It often grows along the nerves, which can cause pain and facial paralysis. Swelling around the mouth is also a common symptom.

Acinic Cell Carcinoma (Acinic Cell Adenocarcinoma)

This cancer develops in the acinar cells, which produce saliva. Acinic cell carcinomas are slow growing. They are more common in women than men. Most develop in the parotid gland. Pain is a common symptom.

Polymorphous adenocarcinoma

“Polymorphous” means that the cancerous tissue has a variety of different growth patterns when seen under a microscope. These are usually slow-growing cancers. Although very rare, they are the second most common cancer of the minor salivary glands after adenoid cystic carcinoma.

Adenocarcinoma, NOS (Not Otherwise Specified)

Adenocarcinoma, NOS, refers to cancer that does not fit an exact classification. It can occur in the major salivary glands (usually the parotid glands) or in the minor salivary glands. A painless lump is the most common symptom.

Other Types of Salivary Gland Tumors

There are a number of other even more rare types of salivary gland cancer. Among them are:

  • adenosquamous carcinoma
  • basal cell adenocarcinoma
  • carcinoma ex pleomorphic adenoma
  • carcinosarcoma
  • clear cell carcinoma
  • cystadenocarcinoma
  • epithelial-myoepithelial carcinoma
  • lymphoepithelial carcinoma
  • lymphomas
  • myoepithelial carcinoma
  • oncocytic carcinoma
  • poorly differentiated carcinoma
  • salivary duct carcinoma
  • sebaceous adenocarcinoma
  • secretory carcinoma
  • squamous cell carcinoma

There are also a number of benign salivary gland tumor types. Among the most common are:

Pleomorphic Adenoma

Pleomorphic adenomas are the most common type of salivary gland tumor. “Adenoma” is another word for a noncancerous lump. “Pleomorphic” refers to variations in the size and shape of individual cells or groups of cells composing the tumor.

Warthin’s Tumor

Warthin’s tumor is a benign lump that almost exclusively appears in the parotid glands. These tumors are more common in men than women. They have been linked to a history of smoking as well as radiation exposure.

Secondary Salivary Gland Cancer

Secondary salivary gland cancer refers to cancer that begins in another area of the body and spreads to the salivary glands. It usually spreads to the parotid glands or, less frequently, the submandibular glands. Around 80 percent of secondary salivary gland cancers start in the head and neck region and spread to the salivary glands via the lymphatic system (the network of tissues and organs that help rid the body of toxins, waste, and other unwanted materials).

Other cancers that may spread to the salivary glands include breast cancer, kidney cancer, and lung cancer.