What Is Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma?: Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment

What Is Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma?

Adenoid cystic carcinoma is a rare form of cancer primarily originating in the salivary glands situated beneath the tongue and on either side of the jawbone. However, it can also manifest in various regions of the oral cavity, throat, or other bodily areas like sweat or tear glands.

In the United States, out of the 1.9 million annual cancer diagnoses, approximately 1,300 cases are identified as adenoid cystic carcinoma. This type of cancer affects more women than men and can arise at any age, typically ranging from adolescence to the elderly years.

Typically characterized by slow growth, adenoid cystic carcinoma may advance to other body parts unnoticed, potentially recurring at previously treated sites or metastasizing to vital organs such as the lungs, liver, or bones, presenting graver concerns.

The exact cause of adenoid cystic carcinoma remains unclear, although potential associations with carcinogens like pollution or asbestos have been suggested.


Symptoms usually commence with the discovery of a painless lump inside the mouth or cheeks, often progressing slowly. Additional indications may include swallowing difficulties or a hoarse voice. Nerve involvement might lead to facial pain or numbness, prompting medical consultation upon symptom recognition.


Diagnosis usually involves a biopsy to extract a tissue sample for pathological examination by a specialized doctor. These tumors exhibit diverse morphologies, ranging from solid masses to cribriform structures resembling hole-ridden Swiss cheese, with solid variants typically displaying faster growth rates.

Further diagnostic procedures such as MRI, CT scans, or PET scans may be recommended to assess tumor size, location, or metastatic spread, employing advanced imaging techniques for comprehensive evaluation.

Treatment typically involves surgical intervention followed by radiation therapy for adenoid cystic carcinoma. During surgery, both the tumor and some surrounding healthy tissue are removed to ensure that the cancer hasn’t spread. Unlike many other cancers, adenoid cystic carcinoma spreads along nerves rather than through lymph nodes. Therefore, special attention is given to examining nerves and removing any cancerous tissue without causing nerve damage. In some cases, partial removal of a nerve may be necessary, potentially resulting in facial paralysis or drooping, although efforts may be made to reconnect the damaged nerve to restore function.

Additionally, surgical procedures may involve the removal of part of the windpipe or voice box. If complete tumor removal poses risks to vital organs or if there are concerns about unseen cancer spread, radiation therapy may be recommended. There are three primary types of radiation therapy: external beam radiation, internal radiation therapy (brachytherapy), and neutron therapy, each targeting cancer cells with varying techniques.

Radiation therapy targeting the head and neck region can lead to side effects such as dry mouth, difficulty swallowing, soreness, and dental damage. Patients are advised to discuss these potential side effects with their healthcare provider and explore available supportive measures.

See also:

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