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Supportive care for salivary gland cancer

Supportive care helps you meet the physical, practical, emotional and spiritual challenges of salivary gland cancer. It is an important part of cancer care. There are many programs and services available to help meet your needs and improve the quality of life for you and your loved ones, especially after cancer treatment has ended.

Recovering from salivary gland cancer and adjusting to life after treatment is different for everyone. Recovery depends on the stage of the disease, the type of treatments you had and many other factors. The end of cancer treatment may bring mixed emotions. Even though your treatment has ended, you may have other issues to deal with, such as coping with long-term side effects.

Talk to your healthcare team about the following concerns. They can suggest ways to treat or help you cope with these problems.

Dry mouth

Dry mouth, or xerostomia, develops when radiation damages the salivary glands so they don’t make enough saliva or the saliva they make is thick or sticky. Your radiation therapy team will take measures to protect the salivary glands from radiation during treatment to reduce the risk of dry mouth.

Most people will have a dry mouth during radiation therapy, but it usually improves after radiation therapy is finished. It can take several months or years for dry mouth to improve. In some cases, it may be a permanent side effect of treatment.

Dry mouth can cause long-term problems with your teeth or gums. It’s important that you see your dentist on a regular basis so that you can maintain your oral health.

Find out more about dry mouth.

Changes to appearance

Sometimes surgery to treat salivary gland cancer can cause scarring or changes to your appearance. You may need to have a large amount of tissue removed from your face and neck. Damage to the facial nerve may cause one side of your face to droop or look different than the other side of your face.

Surgery to the parotid gland can also damage the nerve that controls your eyelid so your eye may not close properly. You may need to have a small weight put into your eyelid skin to help you close your eye.

Radiation therapy can change the colour of your skin in the treatment area. Sometimes these changes don’t go away completely, so the skin on your face or neck may look different.

Let your healthcare team know if you are having problems coping with the changes to your appearance. They can help you find someone to talk to about your feelings. There may be support groups in your area.

Find out more about self-esteem and body image.

Frey syndrome

Frey syndrome is a long-term side effect of surgery to remove a parotid gland. It’s also known as gustatory sweating or auriculotemporal syndrome.

Frey syndrome happens when nerves cut during surgery connect to the sweat glands in the skin while healing. Symptoms include flushing or sweating on one side of the face when eating. Most people don’t find this a problem, but some people may have a lot of flushing and sweating that they find embarrassing. People who have surgery to a wider or deeper area around a parotid gland have a higher risk of developing more severe symptoms.

Frey syndrome is diagnosed by putting iodine and corn starch on the face and then eating. The affected areas show up as dark wet spots where the skin sweats.

During surgery to the parotid gland, doctors do their best to rebuild the nerves to lower your risk of Frey syndrome. If it develops, treatment may include injections with botulinum toxin A (Botox).

Questions about supportive care

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

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