“Wear a hat.”

I received this advice recently from a scalpel-wielding woman who, on a spring morning when crappies were likely biting, carved basal cell carcinoma from my forehead and peered deeply into a watermelon pink divot in my nose from a previous squamous cell carcinoma surgery.

“Yep, a hat would do you good,” my dermatology physician assistant repeated.

As a man who often needs to be told things twice, I was quick to pick up on Nicole Manecke’s sage counsel. Indeed, I now protect my noggin from the sun’s dangerous rays much more aggressively than I did before paying medical bills, swabbing my schnoz each day with hydrogen peroxide and missing morning coffee with the boys due to follow-up appointments.

You should probably follow her advice, too.

Formerly of Chicago, Manecke told me she is blown away by the significantly higher number of skin cancer patients she has seen since leaving Illinois in 2006. Clearly, the Brainerd Lakes area is home to a far higher percentage of fair-skinned Caucasians than Chicago, and Caucasians are more prone to skin cancer than those of darker complexions because they have less melanin, a pigment that protects skin from ultraviolet rays. Still, Manecke said Minnesota’s hunting, fishing, boating and read-a-book-on-the-beach lifestyle is a factor, too, especially among those who historically did not wear a hat or slather-up with sunscreen containing a protection factor (SPF) of at least 30.

Because a sun-shielding hat is essential to personal safety, allow me to share some of my recent sartorial and cancer-related discoveries.

First, do know that a hat should do more than simply protect one’s brow, nose, ears and neck from the sun. A good sporting hat must be at the ready to serve as a bat for swatting pesky ankle-biting flies, a bag for toting wild mushrooms and berries, a ladle for lifting a faceful of cool water from a trout stream, or even a towel for wiping the last remnants of northern pike slime from one’s hands. Such demands eliminate most hats worn at the Kentucky Derby.

Second, form should follow function. Realistically, it’s hard to beat the time-tested sensibility of the sombrero and the conical straw hat. These sun-blocking options are possibilities if your idea of adventure is little more than wrestling a chaise lounge onto the beach and pinning a novel between your hands. However, if you intend to race around in a boat it is best to buy a more sporty broad-brimmed hat with a solid SPF rating and even a shock cord so it doesn’t blow off and into the drink. Also, a flap that protects the nape of your neck is smart, too.

Many hats fit this description. They are widely available online and in big box sporting goods stores. Many even have fun names. Columbia, for example, offers the fashionable Bora Bora Booney II. Stetson sells a stylish Airway Breezer. Orvis wants you to buy the Bugsaway Adventure hat. Educate yourself. Buy smart. Then, if someone says, “Nice hat!,” you can jauntily offer such wisdom as, “Why, thank you. I almost bought the Sims BugStopper SunGaiter powered by Insect Shield, but it’s hard to beat a Booney.”

Third, buy face protection that is committed to both style and skin safety. Such gear should be a cut above the ubiquitous ball cap, which blocks neither sun from ears nor rain from neck. If you go to an upscale haberdasher, the staff may try to match your face shape — round, square, oblong or diamond — to a complementing hat shape. This time-consuming vanity can be easily avoided by simply buying a trendy and highly effective balaclava, a bank robber-type facemask that features tiny ventilating holes. These have become incredibly popular with professional anglers. These deserve your attention, especially if you spend long hours on shimmering and reflecting water.

Finally, don’t fret about price. Plenty of good hats are available for $20 or less. Those willing to spend more can even consider the high-end Tilley Airflo, an $80-plus hat that comes, of all things, with an instruction manual that provides helpful insights beyond put on head.

Yet what you wear is perhaps less important than wearing what you buy. U.S. doctors see 5.4 million new cases of skin each year, according to the Mayo Clinic. Ninety percent are linked to sun exposure. Skin cancer is highly treatable when caught early. However, melanoma, the deadliest form, claims about 9,000 deaths each year. People more apt to contract skin cancer are those with fair skin, a history of sunburn and who are often in the sun. This describes tens of thousands of Minnesota anglers, including me.

I told Manecke the other day that as much as I appreciate her expertise and that of the Edina skin surgeon she referred me to, I have little interest in seeing her often. This, apparently, was a shared sentiment. I came to this conclusion while she plucked stitches from my brow.

“You are wearing a hat these days, right?” she asked.

It sounded hauntingly familiar.


C.B. Bylander is a freelance writer. He lives near Baxter, Minn.