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Don't Brush It Off: How to Recognise Skin Cancer on Your Arms

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Whether you're driving, hanging out the washing or playing sports, your upper body is exposed to the sun more than you probably realise on a daily basis. This means the skin on our arms is more likely to see excessive sun exposure over the course of a day.

In fact, researchers in the US discovered skin cancers were more commonly found on the left (driver's side) arm. They said this incidental sun exposure was likely a contributing factor.

While clothing goes some way to protecting our back and chest, and hats protect our scalp, head, neck and face, Australians are sometimes reluctant to cover up their arms and lower legs in the heat of summer when trying to keep cool. And sun exposure can do just as much harm in winter, when Aussies aren't as likely to be slathering on sunscreen every day.

So, how can you recognise skin cancer on your arm and is there a way to prevent it?

Can you get skin cancer on your arm?

The arms are a very common place for skin cancers to form due to the amount of sun damage they receive on a daily basis and cumulatively throughout our lives, particularly in childhood. The result of too much UV radiation causes damage to DNA in the skin cells, leading to skin cancer.

Risk factors for skin cancer on arms

  • Spending prolonged periods in the sun
  • Fair skin or eyes or light-coloured hair
  • A family history or personal history of skin cancer
  • A history of sunburns
  • Having a large number of moles 
  • A compromised immune system
  • Using tanning beds or solariums

Common skin cancers on arms

  • Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) 
  • Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) 
  • Melanoma

What about moles on my arms?

It's very common to have moles on your arms, but what exactly are they and how can you tell the difference between a mole and a freckle?

A mole is formed when melanin-producing cells called melanocytes cluster to form a skin growth on the skin's surface. Unlike a freckle which is typically flat, a mole is generally raised and can be found in a range of colours from brown and tan to blue or even pink.

Researchers have even discovered that the number of moles on your arms can even predict your skin cancer risk.

Changes to moles should be seen as a cancer warning sign. Read on below for what to look out for.

Early stage signs & symptoms of skin cancers on arm

Skin cancers rarely present with symptoms, which are changes you can feel in your body. Signs, on the other hand, can be measured using a diagnostic tool, such as a blood test or X-ray. A change in the appearance of your skin is usually the most common sign of skin cancer.


Look out for these signs in skin growths such as sores, bumps, lesions, moles or freckles:

  • A sore or lesion that doesn't heal on its own
  • A new mole or freckle
  • A mole, freckle or skin growth that looks different from the rest on your body
  • A skin condition displaying one of the below symptoms


Skin cancers can sometimes, but not always be painful. These are some of the other symptoms which may indicate sores, lumps, lesions, freckles, moles or keratoses (sun spots) have become cancerous.

  • Itching, bleeding or oozing
  • A scaly or crusty appearance
  • Feels dry or flaky  
  • Has become bumpy or raised
cancer on arm

Less common signs and symptoms

Although they are usually the result of rare forms of skin cancer, you should have your skin checked by a doctor if you notice any of these signs on your skin.

  • A firm, shiny lump - can be a sign of Merkel cell carcinoma, the second most deadly form of skin cancer.
  • Slow-growing, rubbery pimple - Dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans is an uncommon type of cancer but as it grows very slowly, it can sometimes be mistaken for a cyst or scar.
  • Purple patches on your skin - Kaposi Sarcoma forms on the skin and can appear as a purple patch. It most commonly affects people with a suppressed immune system.  
  • A hard nodule on the skin - These can be a sign of sebaceous gland carcinoma, which originates in the oil glands of the skin. It is an aggressive cancer with a rate of metastasis of up to 60%. 

What does skin cancer look like on an arm?

Some signs of skin cancer are easy to spot while in other cases, they appear as only subtle changes to your skin. Be on the lookout for:

  • Small, firm brown, tan or translucent nodules
  • Any unusual growth or change in size or shape to moles (or new moles)
  • Lesions, scaly spots and ulcers that are bleeding or crusting 
  • Red skin which is sore or begins to itch
  • Sores on the skin which fail to heal 

How to check your arms for skin cancer

You should perform a skin cancer self-examination every three months. Use a mirror to help you monitor hard-to-see places such as the backs of your arms for any changes to your skin. Use the ABCDE of melanomas to remember what to look out for in moles and skin growths.

A - Asymmetry
B - Borders
C - Colour 
D - Diameter
E - Evolving

What to do if you suspect skin cancer

If you notice any changes to your skin or suspect a skin growth or mole on your arm could be skin cancer, your first step should be to seek out the advice of a doctor who specialises in skin cancer detection and treatment.

Talk to a doctor

When it comes to skin cancers, early detection can save your life. It also increases the chance of successful treatment. Your doctor can also give you important skin cancer facts and offer you support should you require cancer treatment.

Get a skin check

While you can perform self-examinations at home, having regular skin checks with your doctor will also help you to understand what to keep a closer eye on.

Steps for prevention 

Taking practical steps for sun safety can help you prevent skin cancer.

  1. Use an SPF sunscreen everyday and cover your entire body carefully, paying particular attention to your upper body by covering each shoulder, the ears, your neck, arms and hands. Don't forget the back of the legs and feet if they are uncovered. If everyone in Australia used sunscreen every day, we could slash our melanoma rates by one third
  2. Avoid sunlight during the middle of the day when UV Index is high
  3. Clothing offers great protection for your skin from ultraviolet rays - Wear sunglasses, hats, long-sleeve shirts and pants. 
  4. Don't use a tanning bed or solarium for any reason 

Although skin cancer on the arms is common, it is highly preventable and, in most cases, easily treated when detected early. Having regular skin checks with your doctor will also help you to understand what sort of skin conditions to be on the lookout for.

It's simple to book an appointment with the highly-trained doctors at SunDoctors and consultations often take just a few minutes. Book your appointment today.

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