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What Is Parotid Gland Cancer?

What Is Parotid Gland Cancer?

Exposure to environmental and chemical hazards during military service is a serious concern, with the potential to cause severe health complications for veterans long after they leave the battlefield. In recognition of this, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has added numerous conditions to its presumptive illness list, streamlining the process for veterans to receive disability benefits for service-connected health problems.

Parotid gland cancer, a rare but often aggressive form of head and neck cancer, is one such illness currently under investigation for inclusion on the list. 

While the exact causes of parotid gland cancer are not fully understood, research suggests that exposure to certain environmental and chemical hazards during military service may increase the risk of developing this disease.

Some potential risk factors include:

  • Agent Orange and other herbicides used during the Vietnam War
  • Depleted uranium munitions
  • Burn pits
  • Ionizing radiation
  • Industrial chemicals

A cancer diagnosis can be devastating, both physically and emotionally. However, by understanding the potential risk factors for parotid gland cancer and the VA benefits available to veterans who develop this condition, our military community can be better prepared to navigate the challenges of diagnosis and treatment.

What is parotid gland cancer?

Parotid gland cancer affects the largest pair of salivary glands, nestled just below and in front of each ear. These glands produce saliva, aiding digestion, keeping our mouths moist, and shielding them from harmful bacteria.

When DNA within parotid gland cells undergoes mutations, their normal growth and division processes become scrambled. This leads to uncontrolled cell growth, forming a lump or mass in the gland. 

These masses can be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Unlike their benign counterparts, malignant tumors can invade surrounding tissues and spread to other parts of the body through the bloodstream or lymphatic system.

While the exact causes of these mutations remain under investigation, several factors are suspected to play a role. 

Environmental exposures, including those encountered during military service, are a significant potential risk factor. Other potential contributors include lifestyle choices, genetic predispositions, and even random errors during cell division. 

Due to their increased exposure to potential carcinogens in military environments, veterans face a higher risk of developing this relatively rare form of cancer.

Types of Parotid Gland Cancer

  • Mucoepidermoid carcinoma: The most common type, often displaying a mix of mucus-producing, squamous, and basal cells. It can be slow-growing or aggressive, depending on its grade.
  • Adenoid cystic carcinoma: A slow-growing but highly invasive form with a tendency to spread to nerves and lymph nodes.
  • Acinic cell carcinoma: Generally slow-growing with a favorable prognosis, often arising from the acinar cells that produce digestive enzymes in saliva.
  • Polymorphous adenocarcinoma: This type exhibits a variety of cell shapes and growth patterns, making diagnosis more complex. Its aggressiveness can vary.
  • Other rare types: Less common forms include squamous cell carcinoma, oncocytic carcinoma, and basal cell adenocarcinoma.

How common is parotid gland cancer?

While parotid gland cancer is still considered rare, it is the most common type of salivary gland cancer and accounts for approximately 6-8% of all head and neck cancers in the U.S.

Although cases within the general population are relatively low, the risk might be elevated for veterans compared to the non-veteran population. This potential increased risk is likely due to specific exposures encountered during military service, such as Agent Orange or radiation.

Parotid Gland Cancer Symptoms

Early detection of parotid gland cancer can lead to more effective treatment. 

Potential symptoms of parotid gland cancer include

  • Persistent lumps or swelling: A noticeable lump or swelling around the jaw, ear, or cheek that doesn’t go away within a few weeks deserves a doctor’s visit.
  • Facial or neck pain: Unexplained facial or neck pain, especially if it’s persistent or worsening, can be a warning sign.
  • Difficulty with facial movements: Any changes in your ability to smile, frown, or move your facial muscles normally could indicate a problem.
  • Numbness in the face: Facial numbness or tingling, particularly around the ear or jaw, warrants medical attention.
  • Constant pain in the salivary gland region: Aching or pain around the parotid gland, located just below and in front of the ear, shouldn’t be ignored.

Remember, it’s important to consult a healthcare professional promptly if you experience any of them, especially if they are new, persistent, or worsening. 

Parotid Cancer Risks

Parotid gland cancer, while relatively rare, can be a frightening diagnosis. Understanding the potential risk factors associated with it can be empowering, especially for veterans who may have faced unique exposures during their service.

The jury is still out on whether parotid gland cancer is directly hereditary. While the majority of cases appear sporadic, research suggests that some individuals inherit a genetic predisposition towards certain types of cancer-causing chemicals. This doesn’t guarantee cancer, but it can make them more susceptible to the harmful effects of those substances.

Beyond genetics, several environmental and lifestyle factors play a crucial role in increasing the risk of developing parotid gland cancer. 

These include:

  • Exposure to cancer-causing chemicals: Certain industrial solvents, pesticides, and even some hair dyes have been linked to an increased risk of parotid cancer.
  • Radiation exposure: Receiving radiation therapy to the head and neck area significantly elevates the risk, particularly for veterans who may have undergone such treatment during military service.
  • Tobacco use: Smoking and chewing tobacco are established risk factors for various cancers, including parotid gland cancer.
  • Family history: While not directly inheriting parotid cancer, having a family history of head and neck cancers can slightly increase your risk.
  • Diet: Some studies suggest a potential link between a diet low in vegetables and high in animal fat and an increased risk of parotid cancer. However, more research is needed to confirm this association.

How do you test for parotid cancer?

Testing for parotid gland cancer involves multiple steps and procedures to confirm the presence and stage of the cancer. Getting a confirmed diagnosis is the first step to establishing a service connection and filing for benefits related to the disease. Here’s an overview of the typical testing process:

  1. Physical examination: The first step is usually a thorough physical exam, including the head and neck examination. The doctor will check for lumps or problems in the parotid gland area and evaluate symptoms like a weak face or numbness. 
  2. Medical history review: Understanding the patient’s medical history, including any risk factors such as exposure to radiation, family history of cancers, or previous cancers, is crucial for a proper diagnosis. 
  3. Imaging tests: Shows if there is a tumor and helps see the parotid gland and nearby structures. Common imaging tests include:
    • Ultrasound: Used to create images of the parotid gland and can help distinguish between a solid tumor and a fluid-filled cyst.
    • CT scan: Gives detailed pictures of the body to find the size and place of the tumor.
    • MRI: Shows clear pictures of soft tissues and helps determine tumor size and proximity to surrounding structures.
    • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan: Sometimes used with a CT scan (PET/CT) to look for cancer spread or metastasis.
  4. Biopsy: A biopsy is the definitive way to diagnose parotid gland cancer. There are different types of biopsies:
    • Fine-needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy: Involves using a thin needle to remove a small amount of tissue or fluid from the lump for examination under a microscope.
    • Core needle biopsy: Similar to FNA but uses a larger needle to remove a larger tissue sample.
    • Surgical biopsy: In some cases, particularly if other biopsy results are inconclusive, a surgical biopsy might remove part or all of the tumor.

Treatment for Parotid Cancer

Early diagnosis is crucial for successful treatment of parotid gland cancer. This is especially important for high-risk groups like veterans who may have been exposed to factors that increase their risk. 

The main treatment options for parotid cancer include surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy, which can be used alone or in combination depending on the stage and severity of the cancer.

Surgery

  • Simple procedures: For early-stage, low-grade tumors, minimally invasive surgeries like parotid gland excision might be sufficient. This involves removing the tumor and a small margin of surrounding healthy tissue to ensure complete removal.
  • Complex procedures: For larger, more aggressive tumors or those involving nearby structures, more extensive surgeries called parotidectomy might be necessary. In some cases, these may involve removing parts of the parotid gland, facial nerves, lymph nodes, or even jawbone.

Radiation therapy

  • Post-operative: Radiation therapy often follows surgery to target any remaining cancer cells and reduce the risk of recurrence.
  • Primary treatment: For inoperable tumors or patients who cannot undergo surgery due to health concerns, radiation therapy might be the main treatment option.
  • Veteran considerations: Veterans exposed to certain chemicals or radiation during service should discuss potential risks and alternative treatment options with their doctor, as prior exposure can influence the effectiveness and side effects of radiation therapy.

Chemotherapy

  • Chemotherapy uses powerful drugs to kill cancer cells throughout the body. It’s often combined with radiation therapy, particularly for advanced-stage cancers.

Clinical trials

  • New treatment options and drugs are constantly being developed. Patients with advanced or aggressive parotid cancer might consider participating in clinical trials to access cutting-edge treatment options.

Veteran Disability Benefits for Parotid Cancer

Veterans diagnosed with parotid cancer may be eligible for disability benefits from the VA. However, qualifying depends on demonstrating service connection, meaning their military service caused or significantly worsened the cancer.

Service connection can be established through medical evidence showing a direct link between the veteran’s service and the cancer. Depending on the date and location of service, the veteran may be eligible for presumed service connection. For example, if the veteran served during the Gulf War or post-9/11 in areas predominantly in the Middle East, any type of neck cancer, including parotid cancer, is considered presumptive. Veterans are only eligible for presumption if they served during the dates and in countries specified by the VA.

The amount of disability benefits a veteran with parotid cancer can receive depends on the severity of their condition. If approved, veterans going through cancer treatment automatically receive 100 percent.

The VA may reassess the disability rating for cancer patients six months after their treatment has ended. This reassessment considers any lasting effects of the disease and its treatment. These effects include, but are not limited to, facial disfigurement, nerve damage, or the inability to speak or eat.

Summary

Parotid gland cancer, while rare, poses a unique risk to veterans and military personnel due to their service-related exposures. Awareness of symptoms and early detection are key. Veterans experiencing related symptoms should seek medical advice promptly for the best possible outcomes.

Are you getting the most out of your benefits?

If the VA has denied your disability benefits or incorrectly rated your residuals, Cameron Firm, PC, can help. Our experienced attorneys have a deep understanding of the VA disability rating system and are dedicated to fighting for veterans’ rights. 

Schedule a free consultation with our attorneys today to discuss your case and learn more about how we can help you obtain the VA disability benefits you deserve.

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