37 Oral Cavity Salivary Gland Malignancies (Sublingual and Minor)


37 Oral Cavity Salivary Gland Malignancies (Sublingual and Minor)

Eleni M. Rettig and David W. Eisele


Oral cavity minor salivary gland malignancies are relatively rare, but exhibit diverse histopathology. Mucoepidermoid carcinoma and adenoid cystic carcinoma are the most common types; adenoid cystic carcinoma is notable for its high rates of perineural invasion and late distant metastases. Surgical resection, with postoperative radiation for high-risk tumors, is the mainstay of treatment. Prognosis is generally good for early-stage and low-grade tumors, but tumors that are high-grade, large, and associated with cervical lymph node or distant metastases typically have poor outcomes.

37.1 Introduction

Minor salivary gland neoplasms are rare and exhibit a remarkable histologic diversity. 1 , 2 Although minor salivary gland neoplasms are less common than those of major glands, representing just 9 to 23% of all salivary gland tumors, 3 they are more likely to be malignant. Approximately 40 to 75% of minor salivary gland neoplasms are malignant, compared with 20% of major salivary gland neoplasms. 3 , 4 , 56 The oral cavity harbors more minor salivary glands than other anatomic sites, comprising approximately 90% of the 450 to 1000 minor salivary glands that line the upper aerodigestive tract, and, therefore, is the most common site of minor salivary gland neoplasms. 7 , 8 Within the oral cavity, the most common tumor types are mucoepidermoid carcinoma and adenoid cystic carcinoma. 3 Despite the diversity of minor salivary gland malignancies, their management almost always involves surgical resection for operable disease, with or without adjuvant radiation therapy.

This chapter will describe the epidemiology, clinical presentation, evaluation, and management of minor salivary gland malignancies in the oral cavity, with a focus on the most common histopathologic tumor types. Although sublingual glands are considered major salivary glands, the contents of this chapter are considered applicable to these neoplasms as well, due to their location in the oral cavity. For more detailed histopathologic information see Chapter 9 (Pathology: Oral Cavity Salivary Gland Malignancies).

37.2 Epidemiology

The rarity of minor salivary gland malignancies and ongoing changes to the World Health Organization’s histologic classification schema 2 , 9 make epidemiologic studies challenging, so that much of what is known thus far is extrapolated from individual case series.

The estimated incidence of salivary gland malignancies is 4 to 135 cases per million per year, accounting for just 3% of head and neck cancers overall 10 ; among salivary gland malignancies, 10 to 25% arise from minor salivary glands. 7 , 11 The oral cavity is the predominant site of origin for minor salivary gland cancers, accounting for 55 to 70% of cases (▶ Fig. 35.1). 12 , 13 Among oral cavity minor salivary gland malignancies, up to 50 to 75% occur on the hard palate, which is the most common primary site in most series (▶ Fig. 37.1a). 7 , 14 The posterior hard palate at the junction with the soft palate is a particularly common location for minor salivary gland tumors. 3 , 12

Fig. 37.1 Distribution of minor salivary gland malignancies. Salivary gland malignancies comprise just 3% of head and neck malignancies; of these, minor salivary gland malignancies account for 10–25%. The oral cavity is the most common site of minor salivary gland malignancies (55–70% of cases), and 50–75% of these arise from the hard palate.
Fig. 37.2 Presentation of oral cavity minor salivary gland malignancies. (a) Typical presentation of intraoral minor salivary gland tumor as painless bulge of hard palate. Biopsy showed adenoid cystic carcinoma. (b) Left lateral oral tongue adenocarcinoma, NOS.

37.2.1 Risk Factors

Etiologic risk factors for salivary gland malignancies are not well understood due to paucity of robust studies, but several risk factors have been suggested. Some occupational exposures 15 , 16 and dietary factors have been implicated. 17 A history of radiation to the head and neck, for example, exposure to nuclear fallout among atomic bomb survivors, has been associated with increased risk of mucoepidermoid carcinoma in particular. 16 , 18 , 19 Radioiodine for the treatment of well-differentiated thyroid carcinoma 20 and chemotherapy for childhood cancers have also been suggested to increase the risk of mucoepidermoid carcinoma. 1 Despite these reported associations, most salivary gland malignancies cannot be attributed to a specific etiology.

37.2.2 Patient Population

Most minor salivary gland malignant neoplasms affect individuals in their fifth and sixth decades of life and have a slight female predominance with female-to-male ratios of approximately 1.5 to 1. 1 , 7 , 8 , 11 , 12 Minor salivary gland malignancies can also rarely affect children, with mucoepidermoid carcinoma the most common subtype, followed by adenoid cystic carcinoma, and adenocarcinoma. Similar to adults, the most common anatomic location for malignancies in children is the oral cavity, in particular the hard palate. 21 Pediatric malignancies are rarely high-grade, and often require only complete surgical resection. 21 Most series report favorable long-term outcomes with a low risk of recurrence. 21 23

37.2.3 Classification

There are a number of different histopathologic tumor types observed among malignancies of the minor salivary glands. The World Health Organization recently released a new classification schema in its 2017 4th edition guideline which identifies 22 malignant and 11 benign entities (▶ Table 37.1). 1 The two most frequently encountered malignancies in the oral cavity are mucoepidermoid carcinoma (15-59%) and adenoid cystic carcinoma (26-60%), with a lower prevalence of polymorphous adenocarcinoma (previously known as polymorphous low-grade adenocarcinoma) (15-26%), 1 , 2 adenocarcinoma, NOS (7-22%), and acinic cell carcinoma (2-3%). 7 , 8 , 24 27

Table 37.1 World Health Organization 2017 classification of salivary gland tumors with ICD-O codes


  • Mucoepidermoid carcinoma

  • Adenoid cystic carcinoma

  • Acinic cell carcinoma

  • Polymorphous adenocarcinomaa

  • Clear cell carcinoma

  • Basal cell adenocarcinoma

  • Intraductal carcinoma

  • Adenocarcinoma, NOS

  • Salivary duct carcinoma

  • Myoepithelial carcinoma

  • Epithelial-myoepithelial carcinoma

  • Carcinoma ex pleomorphic adenoma

  • Secretory carcinoma

  • Sebaceous adenocarcinoma

  • Carcinosarcoma

  • Poorly differentiated carcinoma

    • Undifferentiated carcinoma

    • Large-cell neuroendocrine carcinoma

    • Small-cell neuroendocrine carcinoma

  • Lymphoepithelial carcinoma

  • Squamous cell carcinoma

  • Oncocytic carcinoma

  • Uncertain malignant potential: Sialoblastoma

Benign tumors:

  • Pleomorphic adenoma

  • Myoepithelioma

  • Basal cell adenoma

  • Warthin’s tumor

  • Oncocytoma

  • Lymphadenoma

  • Cystadenoma

  • Sialadenoma papilliferum

  • Ductal papillomas

  • Sebaceous adenoma

  • Canalicular adenoma and other ductal adenomas

Nonneoplastic epithelial lesions:

  • Sclerosing polycystic adenosis

  • Nodular oncocytic hyperplasia

  • Lymphoepithelial sialadenitis

  • Intercalated duct hyperplasia

Benign soft-tissue lesions:

  • Hemangioma

  • Lipoma/sialolipoma

  • Nodular fasciitis

Hematolymphoid tumors:

  • Extranodal marginal zone lymphoma of mucosa-associated lymphoid tissue (MALT lymphoma)

(Adapted from: Tumours of Salivary Glands. In: El-Naggar A, Chan JKC, Grandis JR, Takata T, Slootweg PJ, eds. WHO Classification of Head and Neck Tumors, 2017:159-202.)

aFormerly known as “polymorphous low-grade adenocarcinoma.”

37.2.4 Clinical Presentation

Minor salivary gland malignancies typically present as a slow-growing firm or soft mass (▶ Fig. 37.2), often on the hard palate. The mass is usually covered with intact mucosa but sometimes may exhibit bleeding or ulceration. Most masses are asymptomatic. In edentulous patients, difficulty wearing dentures may be the initial presenting symptom. A small subset of tumors present with pain, which is more commonly associated with malignant compared with benign tumors. 5 , 28 Adenoid cystic carcinoma in particular has a propensity for perineural invasion, and thus may present with nerve-related symptoms such as numbness or weakness in addition to pain. 29 It is generally not possible to definitively distinguish malignant from benign tumors on physical examination alone.

37.3 Diagnosis and Evaluation

In cases of a suspected intraoral minor salivary gland malignancy, workup includes a full history and thorough head and neck physical examination, with special attention to any signs of local invasion or regional spread. Imaging studies and pathologic evaluation are critical for further assessment and treatment planning.

37.3.1 Differential Diagnosis

The differential diagnosis for oral cavity lesions includes a wide array of benign and inflammatory processes such as mucoceles, fibromas, granulomas, etc. as well as benign minor salivary gland lesions, the most common of which is pleomorphic adenoma (▶ Table 37.1). 3 Other malignant neoplasms include the more common mucosal squamous cell carcinoma, and rarely, lymphoma, metastases from other primary tumors, or mesenchymal malignant tumors, such as malignant schwannoma, malignant fibrous histiocytoma, and rhabdomyosarcoma. 30

37.3.2 Considerations for Biopsy of Suspected Malignancy

The role of biopsy in the workup of intraoral salivary gland neoplasms is to (1) establish the tissue of origin (e.g., salivary gland versus mucosal lesion or lymphoma), and (2) determine whether the tumor is benign or malignant in order to guide surgical planning and patient counseling. Although it is useful for the surgeon to know the histologic subtype and grade of malignancy, this is not always possible if tissue sampling is limited. A small biopsy specimen may preclude evaluation of important pathological features such as infiltrative growth and tissue architecture that are necessary to differentiate tumor types. 31 Many salivary gland tumors have heterogenous growth patterns, and histologic features may be shared amongst several tumor types, thus increasing diagnostic complexity. A possible exception is mucoepidermoid carcinoma, which can often be diagnosed even with a scant tissue sample. 31

Core needle, punch, and incisional biopsies provide more tissue for pathologic evaluation than fine-needle aspiration cytology (FNAC), 32 and for salivary gland neoplasms arising in the oral cavity, these biopsies are often readily attainable. Whereas incisional biopsy is rarely recommended for major salivary gland tumors given their proximity to important neural structures, and risk of tumor spillage for pleomorphic adenomas in particular; there is typically less risk associated with such biopsies for intraoral minor salivary gland neoplasms due to their location. Ultrasound guidance, which is often useful for major gland masses, is rarely necessary for oral cavity neoplasms. Although there is a concern for tumor seeding in cases of pleomorphic adenoma that may give pause to clinicians considering biopsy of a suspected salivary gland neoplasm, there are very few such reported cases attributed to FNAC or core needle biopsies. 32 , 33 Excisional biopsy is not recommended due to high rates of positive margins and increased difficulty of planning or undertaking the definitive resection. 7

37.3.3 Imaging Studies and Extent of Disease Evaluation

Imaging studies are indicated to evaluate the local extent of the tumor with regard to surgical resectability, and for extent of disease evaluation, for example, to assess for cervical lymphadenopathy and/or distant metastases.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) with gadolinium contrast enhancement is the imaging modality of choice for evaluation of salivary gland tumors and provides valuable information regarding local tumor spread and perineural invasion (▶ Fig. 37.2). Characteristics that suggest a high-grade salivary malignancy include invasion of adjacent structures, irregular or poorly defined borders, low signal on T2 images, heterogeneous enhancement, and central tumor necrosis. 30

Fig. 37.3 Magnetic resonance image of right sublingual gland low-grade malignancy in an asymptomatic 27-year-old man, noted incidentally during dental examination.

In addition to tumor characteristics observable on standard MRI, evolving MRI techniques have allowed for increasingly accurate prediction of tumor biology. Apparent diffusion coefficients (ADC) on diffusion-weighted imaging (DWI) can give valuable clues as to whether a tumor is benign or malignant, and it can even suggest a specific histology and grade. Multiple studies have reported a lower ADC for malignant tumors compared with benign tumors. Lower ADC is attributed to the restricted diffusion of water protons through tumors with cytotoxic edema and high cellularity compared with normal tissues and vasogenic edema. 34 , 35 The sensitivity, specificity, and positive and negative predictive values of DWI for identifying malignant versus benign salivary gland tumors have been reported at 91 to 100%. 34 , 36 Dynamic contrast-enhanced (DCE) MRI is another technique that measures tumor enhancement over time and gives additional parameters that can help distinguish malignant from benign tumors. 30 It is recommended that DWI and DCE be added to MRI with contrast in the workup of intraoral minor salivary gland tumors whenever possible.

A limitation of MRI is its ability to evaluate bony detail. Computed tomography (CT) scanning provides excellent bony resolution, therefore a CT scan can be a valuable adjunct to MRI in cases of questionable bone involvement (▶ Fig. 37.3a). Contrast-enhanced CT scan can also provide soft tissue evaluation in patients with contraindications to MRI, such as those with pacemakers or other implants. 18fluorodeoxyglucose (FDG) positron emission tomography (PET)-CT is not always useful for distinguishing benign versus malignant salivary gland diseases because some benign tumors may demonstrate PET avidity. 30

Fig. 37.4 Polymorphous adenocarcinoma variant noted incidentally in a 53-year-old woman. (a) Computed tomography image showing bone erosion into right maxillary sinus. (b) Composite resection of maxillary alveolus and hard palate.

Approximately 15% of patients with minor salivary gland malignancies have cervical lymph node metastases. 11 , 26 , 37 The cervical lymph nodes should be included in any head and neck imaging study so that the neck is evaluated for possible regional nodal involvement. Distant metastases are not uncommon in certain minor salivary gland malignancies and develop in 15 to 30% of patients, with the highest risk among those with high-grade tumors and with clinically positive cervical lymph nodes. 38 , 39 The lungs are the most common site for distant metastasis, and should be evaluated as part of the initial workup with a noncontrast chest CT scan or chest radiograph, or other imaging modality. 30 Adenoid cystic carcinoma, in particular, has a well-described propensity for lung metastases that may develop in > 50% of patients 1 even in the absence of involved neck lymph nodes. 38 , 40

Other less common sites of distant metastases are the liver, bone, and distant lymph nodes. 38 Additional evaluation for distant metastatic disease outside of the lungs and in the absence of symptoms, however, is not standard. 18FDG PET-CT has been shown in recent studies to change management for a subset of patients (15-40% of reported cohorts) with salivary gland malignancies in whom distant metastatic disease is identified using this imaging modality. Most of these cases represented a transition in the goals of management from curative to palliative intent with the discovery of distant metastases (see later discussion of distant metastases). 18 , 41 44 FDG PET-CT is not yet routinely recommended as part of initial staging, but may become so in the future if it is consistently shown both to change management and be cost-effective.

37.3.4 Molecular Alterations

Recent advances in molecular testing offer an unprecedented understanding of the genetic alterations that underlie salivary gland malignancies, holding promise for increased diagnostic accuracy as well as therapeutic targeting and improved prognostic information. In particular, a number of salivary gland malignancies harbor specific genetic translocations (▶ Table 37.2). Up to 80% of adenoid cystic carcinomas have a t?(6;9)(q22-23;p23-24) rearrangement resulting in a MYB-NFIB fusion gene, which is a useful ancillary diagnostic test. Approximately 40 to 80% of mucoepidermoid carcinomas have t(11;19)(q21;p13) rearrangement resulting in CRTC1-MAML2 fusion gene that may be associated with less aggressive disease and improved prognosis in both low- and high-grade mucoepidermoid carcinomas. Nearly all mammary analogue secretory carcinomas harbor t(12;15)(p13;q25) rearrangement with ETV6-NTRK3 fusion. Although these genetic alterations are currently useful primarily for diagnostic purposes, future research may shed light on their potential roles as therapeutic targets. 45

Table 37.2 Characteristics of common intraoral minor salivary malignancies. 1 , 7 , 8 , 12 , 24 27 , 45 48


Mucoepidermoid carcinoma

Adenoid cystic carcinoma

Polymorphous adenocarcinoma

Adenocarcinoma, NOS

Acinic cell carcinoma


Low- and intermediate-grade indolent; high-grade aggressive with poor prognosis

Slow-growing but relentless and locally aggressive, tendency for perineural invasion and distant metastases

Previously known as polymorphous low-grade adenocarcinoma (PLGA); name changed because some can exhibit aggressive clinical behavior, although considered indolent

Epithelial carcinomas not otherwise categorized; includes former cystadenocarcinoma. High grade with worse prognosis

More common in parotid gland. Subset recently reclassified as secretory carcinoma. Typically not aggressive

Percentage of intraoral minor salivary gland malignancies

Up to 60%

Up to 60%





F:M = 1.5:1

Median age 52 years

Most common salivary gland malignancy in children

F:M = 1.5:1

Median age 57 years

F:M = 2:1

Mean age 59 years

Mean age 58 years

F:M = 1.5:1

Mean age 50 years

Second most common salivary gland malignancy in children

Clinically relevant histopathologic features

Low, intermediate, and high grade

Solid, cribriform, and tubular growth patterns; > 30% solid growth pattern more aggressive. Perineural invasion common. Rare high-grade transformation

Perineural invasion common. High-grade transformation associated with shorter survival

Low, intermediate, and high grade based on degree of cellular atypia

High-grade transformation associated with shorter survival

Genetic alterations

t(11;19)(q21;p13) translocation and CRTC1-MAML2 gene fusion in 40-80%

t(6;9) or t(8;9) translocations resulting in fusions of MYB or MYBL1 oncogenes with transcription factor NFIB in > 80%

Hotspot activating point mutations of PRKD1 (73%)



10-year OS: low-grade 90%, intermediate-grade 70%, high-grade 25%

10-year OS: 50-70%, 20-year OS: 30-50%

Regional mets uncommon. High risk of distant mets (> 50% of cases), usually to the lungs, and may occur many years after treatment

10-year OS: 73%, DSS: 96-99%, RFS: 83%. Regional and distant mets uncommon (9-15% and 4.3%)

15-year OS: 54% for low grade, 31% for intermediate grade, and 3% for high grade

20-year OS: 90%

Abbreviations: DSS, disease-specific survival; OS, overall survival; RFS, recurrence-free survival.

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Jun 24, 2020 | Posted by in General Dentistry | Comments Off on 37 Oral Cavity Salivary Gland Malignancies (Sublingual and Minor)
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