Spotting Salivary Gland Cancer

Have a painless bump in the jaw?  It could be serious. Learn how to spot the signs of salivary gland tumours.
By Dr Christopher  Goh, ENT Head & Neck Surgeon

The first sign of salivary gland cancer can easily be mistaken. It often appears as an innocuous, typically painless lump that grows in the salivary gland area, which runs along the jawline. These lumps can be either benign (harmless) or malignant (able to spread and possibly fatal). Either way, I strongly recommend surgical removal of these salivary gland growths. Even if a lump in the salivary gland is not cancerous when it is diagnosed, the benign tumour will keep growing, and there is  a chance it may turn malignant in the future.


Salivary gland growths most often occur in the parotid glands, the largest salivary glands that are located just in front of and below the ears.

The second most common area in which salivary gland tumours can occur is the submandibular glands, located just below the jawline. Tumours can also grow in  the  salivary  glands under the floor of the mouth, below the sides of the tongue, as well as beneath the lining of the lips, tongue, in the roof of the month, inside the checks, nose, sinuses, and voice box — but these are rare.

While there is no specific cause of salivary gland tumours, smoking is associated with a benign parotid gland tumour commonly called Warthin’s tumour. This growth is a result of the proliferation of lymphoid tissue within the gland as a response to smoking. The causes of salivary gland cancers are unknown but risk factors include a family history of the same cancer, age and previous exposure to radiation.

To diagnose if a growth in the salivary gland is serious and warrants timely medical intervention, we do a procedure called a needle biopsy, where we use a needle to obtain a tissue sample of the lump. This procedure is commonly done in conjunction with ultrasound scan guidance. The cells are then tested in a laboratory to determine if they are cancerous.


Many patients ask me if their salivary gland growths can be treated with medication, but surgery is the only option to remove the growth. If the tests show that the growth is malignant, radiation therapy may have to be given as part of the follow-up treatment. This will help kill off any remaining cancerous cells. In most cases, recovery from the procedure will take a couple of weeks, and most patients are able to go back to work about two weeks after the surgery. For those requiring radiotherapy, their treatment will usually start about four to six weeks after surgery and may take about six weeks to complete.

As with many cancers, early detection is important as it is associated with a much better outcome and less risk of the cancer spreading. A fair number of patients come in for consultation only during the later stages of the cancer because they were unaware of the growth. Thus, it is important that you have a good awareness of your body, so that you can detect any unusual growths early and get them evaluated.

Prof Christopher Goh
Ear, Nose & Throat - Head   &   Neck Surgeon

  Novena ENT-Head & Neck Surgery Specialist Centre
  38 Irrawaddy Road #04-21/22/34
Mount Elizabeth Novena Specialist Centre
Singapore 329563
Tel: 6933 0451


Tel No: (+65) 9754 4719, (+65) 6933 0451
Mount Elizabeth Novena Specialist Centre
#04-21/22/34, 38 Irrawaddy Road
Singapore 329563
Parkway East Medical Centre
#03-07, 319 Joo Chiat Place
Singapore 427989