Salivary gland cancer

Introducing parts of the salivary glands and functions

What are the salivary glands?

The salivary glands make spit (saliva) and releases it into the mouth to keep the mouth and throat moist, and help with swallowing and digesting food.

There are major (large) and minor (small) salivary glands. There are three pairs of major salivary glands called:

  • parotid

  • submandibular glands

  • sublingual glands

The minor salivary glands are found inside the mouth, just under the surface including the lips, cheeks and top of the mouth (soft palate). 

Parotid gland

The parotid glands are found just in front of the ears and behind the jaw. They move saliva into the mouth through a tube called the parotid duct. This tube opens on the inside of the cheek, near the upper molar teeth. The nerve that controls the facial muscles (called the facial nerve), runs through the parotid gland. This nerve makes you smile, frown, close your eyes and raise your eyebrows.

The parotid gland is the largest salivary gland and where most salivary gland cancers occur. The parotid glands also contain lymph nodes (bean shaped glands that are part of the immune system’s defence against infections). Sometimes skin cancers, can spread to the lymph nodes inside the parotid glands. Most parotid gland tumours are not cancers and are called benign tumours.

Submandibular and sublingual glands

The submandibular glands lie under the jawbone, one on each side. They release saliva into the mouth through a duct (tube) that opens in the floor of the mouth, under the tip of the tongue. Three important nerves are found next to these glands –the hypoglossal nerve, lingual nerve and marginal branch of the facial nerve. These nerves give movement, feeling and taste to the tongue and move the lower lip. Tumours of the submandibular gland can be benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancer). 
 
The sublingual glands lie under the tongue, one on each side. They release saliva into the submandibular duct and are near the lingual nerves which give feeling and taste to the front of the tongue. The sublingual glands are the smallest of the major salivary glands and rarely develop tumours, but tend to be malignant (cancer) when they do develop.

Minor salivary glands
There are hundreds of minor salivary glands throughout the mouth and throat. The minor salivary glands can also develop tumours, which can be benign or malignant.

The salivary glands and the surrounding areas