Adam Yauch and Parotid Cancer: Facts and Myths

About Dr. Ryan Osborne

Ryan F. Osborne, M.D. is the Director of Head and Neck Surgery at OHNI and is an internationally renowned expert in head and neck oncology. He has developed a special interest for the treatment of parotid gland tumors and focuses on the use of minimally-invasive techniques in the care of patients needing parotid surgery.

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In the wake of the death of Beastie Boys singer Adam Yauch, there have been many questions about parotid cancer.  As a specialist in the treatment of benign and malignant salivary gland disease, this is something that comes into my office on a daily basis.  This tragedy can teach us much about salivary gland cancer and it is important to learn about these diseases, so that when they touch us, we are prepared.

What is the parotid gland?

The parotid gland is a salivary gland that is located in the face, in front of the ear.  When you eat, saliva is produced to aid in digestion of the food in your mouth.  The parotid gland produces the majority of this saliva.  The other salivary glands, the submandibular and sublingual, produce the rest.

It is very important to understand that the facial nerve, that allows you to move your face, travels within the parotid gland.

Therefore diseases that affect the parotid gland can affect your ability to move your face.

How common is parotid cancer?

Parotid tumors are not as rare as one would think.  However, the vast majority of tumors that occur in the parotid gland are benign, meaning they are not truly cancer.  Those that are malignant (cancer-containing) are more rare but are often more dangerous and potentially fatal when they do occur.

How is parotid cancer diagnosed?

The most common symptoms of parotid cancer are:

  • A lump in the cheek, neck or mouth
  • Pain in the face or neck
  • Twitching or weakness of the facial muscles
  • Paralysis of the face

The only way to diagnose a parotid tumor is to have a thorough examination by a salivary gland specialist, have a fine needle aspiration (FNA), and to have imaging done (usually MRI).

What doctors are not aware of is that an FNA is often inaccurate in the case of parotid tumors.  The results are often said to be benign when, in reality, the tumor is malignant.

With experience, a surgeon can ascertain whether or not a tumor has malignant signs and determine if removal is necessary.  Imaging, patient examination characteristics, and features of the FNA are all merely aids to the surgeon. Clinical experience with a large volume of parotid disease is the final piece that allows correct interpretation and treatment of the patient.

However, there are very few truly experienced salivary gland surgeons in the world.  This makes the decision of whom to have evaluate you that much more critical.  If the wrong decision is made, you risk undertreatment of a cancer with future spread, and possible death. 

How do I find the right surgeon?

It is very difficult to find an experienced surgeon.  When looking for a surgeon, you should ask certain questions to determine if they are the right doctor for you.

More details about how to find a parotid surgeon can be found here.


Read patient stories about Dr. Osborne and Dr. Hamilton
from the Salivary Gland Center, at the Osborne Head & Neck Institute

To learn more about Sialendoscopy and Dr. Ryan Osborne & Dr. Jason Hamilton, visit: