You’ll find him on a park bench. It’s a virtual park bench, but that’s the point. He’s there every day, like a benevolent NPC waiting to offer advice on your quest. Or better still, a male version of The Matrix’s Oracle. Nathan lives inside the internet and even though he’s only a bot, he just might save your life.
Nathan is a collaboration between America’s public health agency, the CDC, and the National Association of Chronic Disease Directors, brought to life by Kognito, a tech firm specialising in virtual interactions. ‘Talking’ with him is largely multiple choice – no fancy AI yet – but Nathan answers in a warm, genial tone. ‘We wanted to offer a tool that could be a non-threatening entry to the questions that a lot of men might have about prostate health,’ says Dr David Siegel, a CDC oncologist who helped develop Nathan. ‘It’s a taboo topic in some ways because it affects a man’s health in a very sensitive area.’
The word ‘prostate’ itself conjures uncomfortable thoughts of a doctor’s lubed-up finger, limp penises and adult nappies. The kind of thoughts that might lead you to simply ignore the subject altogether.
However, prostate cancer is the most common type in UK men, accounting for more than a quarter of cases. About one in eight men will get prostate cancer in their lifetime. Black men have double the risk of dying from low-grade prostate cancer and tend to get it younger.
Nathan launched in August 2020, with 93% of users saying he has helped them. Before the simulation, only 46% felt confident talking to a GP about prostate-cancer screening and treatment; after, that number was 88%.
You may wonder how talking about prostate cancer would keep you from getting it, or how it would keep you from getting ED or incontinence from treatment. ‘Men aren’t inclined to discuss anything they think makes them appear less-than,’ says Dr Heather Goltz, a professor of social work at the University of Houston, who counsels prostate-cancer patients and couples. ‘Anything that contradicts your narrative of feeling in control makes you say, “Yeah, I can’t think about that right now. I’ve got bills to pay. I’ve got kids to take care of. I’m planning my holiday in June,”’ she says.
However, addressing your risk and talking to your GP – or using a resource like Nathan – is an immediate way to keep the power in your hands, says Dr Goltz. Answers give you control, even if the conversations are difficult. The more you know, the more you’re in charge, no matter what your prostate decides to do. Here’s what we mean:
If you have a history of prostate cancer in your family . . .
Get control by: Working on a screening plan with your GP. If more than one relative was diagnosed before 65, you’re at the highest risk. Nearly 99% of cases are treatable if caught early.
If you have an elevated PSA score . . .
Get control by: Not panicking. An elevated PSA often isn’t cancer related. Your GP will monitor your level. If you have a biopsy, keep in mind that only 25% of prostate biopsies find cancer*.
If you have ED after treatment . . .
Get control by: Knowing your options. There are plenty of medical strategies, such as pills, injections and other penile-rehab solutions. Use it as a chance for you and your partner to change up sex and make it just as satisfying.
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