Canadian Cancer Society logo

Salivary gland
cancer

You are here: 

Diagnosis of salivary gland cancer

Diagnosing salivary gland cancer usually begins with a visit to your family doctor. Your doctor will ask you about any symptoms you have and do a physical exam. Based on this information, your doctor may refer you to a specialist or order tests to check for salivary gland cancer or other health problems.

The process of diagnosis may seem long and frustrating. It’s normal to worry, but try to remember that other health conditions can cause similar symptoms as salivary gland cancer. It’s important for the healthcare team to rule out other reasons for a health problem before making a diagnosis of salivary gland cancer.

The following tests are commonly used to rule out or diagnose salivary gland cancer. Many of the same tests used to diagnose cancer are used to find out the stage, which is how far the cancer has progressed. Your doctor may also order other tests to check your general health and to help plan your treatment.

Diagnostic testsStaging and other tests

Health history and physical exam

Your health history is a record of your symptoms, risk factors and all the medical events and problems you have had in the past. In taking a health history, your doctor will ask questions about a personal history of:

  • symptoms that suggest salivary gland cancer
  • radiation exposure
  • tobacco use

Your doctor may also ask about a family history of head and neck cancer.

A physical exam allows your doctor to look for any signs of salivary gland cancer. During a physical exam, your doctor may:

  • check for lumps in your jaw, neck, throat and mouth
  • look for any changes to your face, such as drooping muscles, unevenness or twitching
  • test for areas of numbness, or lack of feeling, on your face
  • ask you to open your mouth and move your tongue
  • use a small mirror and a light to look inside your mouth

Find out more about physical exam.

Back to top

CT scan

A computed tomography (CT) scan uses special x-ray equipment to make 3-D and cross-sectional images of organs, tissues, bones and blood vessels inside the body. A computer turns the images into detailed pictures.

A CT scan is used to find a salivary gland tumour and get more information about its size, shape and location. It is also used to find out if the tumour has grown into tissues around the salivary gland, nerves in the face or nearby lymph nodes.

Doctors may also use CT scan to guide them to a tumour during a biopsy. CT scan of the chest is used to look for cancer that has spread to the lungs.

Find out more about CT scan.

Back to top

MRI

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses powerful magnetic forces and radiofrequency waves to make cross-sectional images of organs, tissues, bones and blood vessels. A computer turns the images into 3-D pictures.

MRI is becoming more common as a diagnostic test for parotid gland tumours. It is used to find a tumour and get more information about its size, shape and location. MRI is also used to find out if the tumour has grown into tissues around the salivary gland, nerves in the face or nearby lymph nodes.

Find out more about MRI.

Back to top

Biopsy

During a biopsy, the doctor removes tissues or cells from the body so they can be tested in a lab. The report from the lab will tell doctors if a lump in the salivary gland is an infection or a tumour. If it is a tumour, the report will say if it is non-cancerous or cancerous. For cancerous tumours, the report will say if it started in the salivary gland, or if it is another type of cancer that has spread to the salivary gland.

Fine needle aspiration (FNA) uses a very thin needle and syringe to remove a small amount of fluid or cells from a lump or mass.

Incisional biopsy removes a small piece of a lump in a salivary gland through a surgical incision, or cut. It is not done very often. It may be done if doctors can’t get enough tissue from FNA to make a diagnosis.

If a diagnosis cannot be made even after imaging tests or a biopsy, the lump is removed during surgery. The tissue removed will be tested for cancer cells.

Find out more about fine needle aspiration (FNA) and incisional biopsy.

Back to top

Questions to ask your healthcare team

To make the decisions that are right for you, ask your healthcare team questions about diagnosis.


Stories

Researcher Dr John Bell Dr John Bell revealed how cancer-killing viruses attack tumour blood vessels.

Learn more

How can you stop cancer before it starts?

It's My Life! icon

Discover how your lifestyle choices can affect cancer risk and how you can take action with our interactive tool – It’s My Life!

Learn more