What are the signs and symptoms of salivary gland cancer?

A fellow caregiver asked...

What are the signs and symptoms of salivary gland cancer?

Expert Answer

Senior Editor Melanie Haiken, who is responsible for Caring.com's coverage of cancer, general health, and family finance, discovered how important it is to provide accurate, targeted, usable health information to people facing difficult decisions.

The most common early sign of salivary gland cancer is a lump or swelling in the area of the salivary gland, which is between your neck and your jawline. If you detect an area of swelling in your mouth, neck, along your jaw, or higher up in your face closer to your ear, see a doctor. (The two main salivary glands are the parotid gland, in the upper portion of each cheek near your ear, and the submandibular glands, in the floor of your mouth.)

It's important to pay attention to other signs as well, though, because more than half the growths, or tumors, found in the salivary gland are not cancer but benign tumors. Here are some symptoms to watch for:

  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Numbness or muscle weakness in the lower part of your face
  • Pain, swelling, or tenderness in the lower part of your face or neck or up by your ear
  • A weak or numb tongue
  • Trouble opening your mouth all the way
  • Differences in size and shape between the right and left side of your face

Other early signs reported by salivary gland cancer patients:

  • The feeling that the tongue is swollen or can't move as easily
  • Drooping along the jawbone or along one side of the face
  • Weakness of the facial muscles -- sometimes confused with the signs of a stroke
  • Changes in speech, such as slurring words
  • Fluid draining from the ear
  • Facial palsy or tremor

Salivary gland cancer is most common in smokers, former smokers, and those who chew tobacco, so if you are or have been a tobacco user, it's particularly important to be vigilant for signs of this type of cancer.