Dentist Finds Salivary Gland Cancer in Tennis Player Nicole Gibbs' Mouth—Here's What That Means
American tennis star Nicole Gibbs announced earlier this week that she had pulled out of the French Open to undergo surgery for salivary gland cancer. The 26-year-old said her diagnosis came after her dentist asked her about a growth on the roof of her mouth during a routine appointment last month.
Gibbs, currently ranked number 117 globally by the Women's Tennis Association, shared on Twitter that she's scheduled to have surgery today and hopes to return for Wimbledon in June after four to six weeks of recovery. "I am feeling extremely grateful for the UCLA health network that's been taking amazing care of me, and for rock solid friends and family who are helping me every step of the way," she wrote. "See you back on [the] court soon."
The bump on the roof of her mouth had actually been there for years, Gibbs told Today, but she didn't think much of it until her dentist raised a concern. "Fortunately, this form of cancer has a great prognosis and my surgeon is confident that surgery alone will be sufficient treatment," she wrote.
Salivary gland cancers aren't very common, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS), and make up less than 1% of all cancers in the United States.
There are three pairs of major salivary glands (which aid in digestion, keep the mouth moist, and support healthy teeth) under and behind the jaw. There are also many tiny salivary glands in the lips, inside of the cheeks, and throughout the mouth and throat. Cancerous tumors can develop in any of these salivary glands, according to Mayo Clinic.
Symptoms of salivary gland cancer include a lump or swelling on or near the jaw, neck, or mouth; numbness or muscle weakness in the face; difficulty swallowing; trouble opening the mouth; and pain near a salivary gland.
It's not clear what causes salivary gland cancer, but risk factors include old age, exposure to radiation, or exposure to substances used in jobs such as rubber manufacturing, asbestos mining, and plumbing.
As Gibbs pointed out on Twitter, salivary gland cancer thankfully has a high survival rate. About 72% of people diagnosed with salivary gland cancer are still alive at least 5 years after being diagnosed, according to the ACS. Surgery to remove part of or the whole salivary gland can get rid of the cancer, but radiation and chemotherapy may be needed in more advanced cases.
Gibbs told Today that she hopes her story will remind people how important it is to speak to your doctor about any changes that happen with your body, even if it's just a small bump. "I think it's a good reminder for self-advocacy," she said. "I think we tend to know if there's something that's off or wrong."