What Happens After Treatment for Salivary Gland Cancer?

For some people, treatment may remove or destroy the salivary gland cancer. Completing treatment can be both stressful and exciting. You may be relieved to finish treatment, but find it hard not to worry about cancer coming back. (When cancer comes back after treatment, it’s called recurrence.) This is a very common concern in people who have had cancer.

It may take a while before your fears lessen. But it might help to know that many cancer survivors have learned to live with this uncertainty and are living full lives. Understanding Recurrence gives more detailed information on this topic. You can read it online, or call us to have a free copy sent to you.

For other people, the cancer may never go away completely. These people may get regular treatments with chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or other therapies to try to help keep the cancer in check. Learning to live with cancer that does not go away can be difficult and very stressful. It has its own type of uncertainty. See Managing Cancer as a Chronic Illness for more about this.

Follow-up care

If you have completed treatment, your doctors will still want to watch you closely. It’s very important to go to all of your follow-up appointments. During these visits, your doctors will ask questions about any problems you are having and may do exams and tests to look for signs of cancer or treatment side effects. Almost any cancer treatment can have side effects. Some may last for a few weeks to months, but others can last the rest of your life. This is the time for you to tell your cancer care team about any changes or problems you notice and any questions or concerns you have.

Most doctors recommend follow-up exams every few months for the first couple of years, and then less often after that if nothing abnormal is found. If you had radiation therapy to the neck, your doctor will probably want to get blood tests as well to check your thyroid function.

Imaging tests such as CT scans may be done after treatment to get a baseline idea of what the head and neck area look like. Further imaging tests may be done if you later develop any signs or symptoms that might be due to a return of the cancer.

You may be advised to see your dentist after treatment to check on the health of your teeth. Your doctor will also want to keep a close eye on your hearing, speech, and swallowing, which can be affected by treatment. If you are having problems with any of these, your doctor may refer you to a therapist for help with rehabilitation.

It’s important to keep health insurance. Tests and doctor visits cost a lot, and even though no one wants to think of their cancer coming back, this could happen.

Should your cancer come back, treatment will depend on where the cancer is, what treatments you’ve had before, and your overall health. For more information on how recurrent cancer is treated, see Recurrent Salivary Gland Cancer.  Coping With Cancer Recurrence can also give you information on how to manage and cope with this phase of your treatment.

Your appearance and other changes

Surgery or other treatments can affect nerves and other structures in the face and neck. This can affect how you look. Ask your doctor about reconstructive surgery options that might be available for you.

Surgery around the jaw or neck can sometimes lead to ear numbness, weakness in raising your arm above your head, and weakness of the lower lip. If this happens, your doctor can refer you to a physical therapist, who can teach you exercises to improve your neck and shoulder movement.

Treatment of salivary gland cancer can sometimes cause problems such as trouble speaking or swallowing, dry mouth, or even tooth loss. This can make it hard to eat, which can lead to weight loss and weakness due to poor nutrition.

Some people may need to adjust what they eat during and after treatment or may need nutritional supplements to help make sure they get the nutrition they need. A team of doctors and nutritionists can work with you to help you manage your individual nutritional needs. This can help you maintain your weight and get the nutrients you need.

If treatment affects how you speak, there might be both surgical and non-surgical options that can help. Your doctor will probably refer you to a speech therapist, a professional who is trained in helping people with speech problems. Some people might need to learn new ways of speaking. The speech therapist can play a major role in helping with this.

Dental care is often very important at this time as well, especially if you your mouth is dry as a result of surgery. If needed, your doctor can refer you to a dentist, who can help you care for your teeth and offer ways to help with dry mouth, such as using artificial saliva.

Tell your doctor or nurse about any other problems you are having. There are also groups that can provide support and help teach you how to manage any lingering problems you may have. 

Seeing a new doctor

At some point after your cancer diagnosis and treatment, you may find yourself seeing a new doctor who does not know anything about your medical history. It’s important that you be able to give your new doctor the details of your diagnosis and treatment. Gathering these details during and soon after treatment may be easier than trying to get them at some point in the future. Make sure you have the following information handy:

  • A copy of your pathology report(s) from any biopsies or surgeries
  • If you had surgery, a copy of your operative report(s)
  • If you stayed in the hospital, a copy of the discharge summary that doctors prepare when patients are sent home
  • If you had radiation therapy, a copy of your treatment summary
  • If you had chemotherapy, a list of your drugs, drug doses, and when you took them
  • Copies of any imaging tests, such as x-rays and CT scans (which can usually be stored digitally on a DVD, etc.)

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Medical Review: January 13, 2014 Last Revised: March 3, 2015

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