Do We Know What Causes Salivary Gland Cancer?

Although we know a few things that can raise a person’s risk of salivary gland cancer, it’s not clear exactly what causes most of these cancers.

Cancer is caused by changes in the DNA inside of cells. DNA is the chemical in each of our cells that makes up our genes – the instructions for how our cells function. We usually look like our parents because they are the source of our DNA. However, DNA affects more than how we look. It also can influence our risk for developing certain diseases, such as some kinds of cancer.

Some genes help control when cells grow, divide into new cells, and die. Genes that help cells grow, divide, and stay alive are called oncogenes. Genes that slow down cell division or cause cells to die at the right time are called tumor suppressor genes. Cancers can be caused by DNA changes that turn on oncogenes or turn off tumor suppressor genes. Changes in several different genes are usually needed for a cell to become cancer.

Researchers don’t yet know all of the DNA changes that result in salivary gland cancer, but they have found some gene changes that are often found in these cancers.

Salivary gland cancer does not usually run in families, so most of the DNA changes that lead to this cancer are not likely to be inherited from a person’s parents. Instead, these changes probably take place during a person’s lifetime. Sometimes these changes might just be random events that happen inside cells, without having an outside cause. But sometimes the cause might be something specific, like exposure to radiation or certain carcinogens (cancer-causing chemicals).

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Revised: September 28, 2017

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