What is Adenoid Cystic Cancer?

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  • Written By: A. Pasbjerg
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 18 September 2019
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Human glandular and secretory tissues can sometimes be affected by adenoid cystic cancer. This rare type of carcinoma, also known as AdCC, usually attacks the salivary glands, though it has been known to occur in other areas such as the trachea, breast tissue, and lacrimal glands. It often affects older people, but may also be diagnosed in children as well.

One of the unusual and complicating factors with adenoid cystic cancer is its tendency to spread to remote parts of the body. The original tumor may arise in the head or neck, but it often metastasizes, or spreads, to distant locations not associated with the original site. The most common area to find tumors that have spread from an AdCC tumor is the lungs. This behavior is uncommon for cancer, which often moves into the nearby lymph nodes; adenoid cystic cancer only does so in a small number of cases.

Adenoid cystic cancer typically has a very slow growth rate. This often leads to a relatively high survival rate in patients at first, as the cancer takes time to progress and there is a good opportunity for treatment. This type of cancer often recurs, however, and may spread aggressively; its tendency to move to different areas of the body can also make it more difficult to treat. Many patients live with the disease for a long time, but survival rates decline the longer it persists.


Due to its propensity to attack the salivary glands, adenoid cystic cancer often causes masses in the neck, mouth, or face. The tumors are initially painless, but as they grow they may cause pain and numbness. This is due to their tendency to spread along the nerve paths, putting pressure on the nerves. Depending on the location of the tumors, they may also affect nearby structures like the eyes, trachea, or larynx, which can in turn impact vision, breathing, and speech.

Surgery to remove the tumors is the most frequently used treatment for adenoid cystic cancer. It is important to cleanly remove all of the affected tissue; this can sometimes be difficult depending on the tumors' locations in the head and neck and because they spread out along the nerves. If surgery cannot adequately address all of the cancerous material, follow-up with radiation or neutron beam therapy will likely be necessary. Chemotherapy is less common, but may be used if the cancer metastasizes.


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