Will a famed PNG singer’s brush with cancer break the country’s buai-chewing tradition?


He's won an ARIA and is one of Papua New Guinea's most famous musicians, but George Telek nearly lost his ability to sing because of a simple life-long drug habit that's more common than chewing gum.

Key points:

  • PNG has the world's highest rate of mouth cancer, but only one cancer treatment facility
  • Around 80 per cent of PNG's adult population chew 'buai' daily, according to the WHO
  • Mr Telek says his cancer scare scared him to stop chewing and hopes others follow suit

Doctors were forced to remove a tumour on this mouth earlier this year — and that cancer was caused by chewing betel nut every day.

The nut is chewed with a stick of mustard and slaked lime powder (calcium hydroxide), derived from crushed up coral, to make what's known locally in PNG as 'buai'.

That combination acts as a stimulant, but it is also highly addictive.

Lois Phillip, who has set up her stall in a more affluent part of Port Moresby to sell betel nut to the wealthy, has also been chewing it for as long as she can remember.

'When I chew betel nut I feel like I am alive'

Lois Phillip poses in front of betel nuts laid on a piece of cloth.

"We are addicted, we think it's bad but we know it, but we sort of ignore it, we pretend that nothing will happen," Ms Phillip said.

"When I chew betel nut I feel like I am alive … without betel nut I feel dead or asleep."

Mixed with saliva, a bright red paste — 'buai' — reddens the chewer's lips and stains their teeth bright red.

Streets across PNG are often littered with the tell-tale signs of betel nut chewing: red spittle splattered on roads and footpaths, not too dissimilar to blood.

A group of people stand in front of stacks of betel nut in PNG.

Like elsewhere in the Asia Pacific region, chewing betel nut had long been an important cultural practice, but is a standard part of everyday life for as much as 80 per cent of PNG's adult population,according to a 2012 report from the World Health Organisation.

The practice is so culturally engrained that even children as young as eight take it up.

And like many Papua New Guineans, singer George Telek, who won the ARIA for Best World Music Album in 1997, has been chewing it for most of his life.

But he's vowed to kick the habit after doctors diagnosed him with mouth cancer earlier this year, after he performed at the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast.

"It is from the lime and partly from betel nut and the mustard. The doctor told me back in Brisbane that," Mr Telek told Pacific Beat.

"I'm okay because they took the tumour from my lips. It didn't go into my mouth, it was just on the outside".

'I won't chew any more, I'm very scared to chew': Telek

A close up of George Telek's face.

But it's had a profound impact on him.

"I won't chew any more, I'm very scared to chew," he said.

And he's hoping other Papua New Guineans can learn from his experience.

"They should stop chewing betel nut, everyday, every morning, every night, because it's very dangerous to our health," he said.

External Link: George Telek song Mi Save Wari Turu

PNG has the world's highest rates of mouth cancer — and experts say that directly correlates to the high rates of betel nut chewing.

Australian oral surgeon Dr Barry Reed recently described it as an "epidemic" and said 98 per cent of people with mouth cancer chewed betel nut — Mr Telek was lucky that it was caught early enough.

Dr Polapoi Chalau is sitting in his clinic.

Because of his stature, people around the world rallied to help fundraise to cover the costs of his medical treatment in Australia and his recovery.

Mouth cancer is the number one cancer killer of PNG men and it's the third most common cancer for women, and health authorities say more young people are also being diagnosed with mouth cancer.

But there is still only one cancer treatment facility in the entire country, to service a population of around 8 million people.

Dr Polapoi Chalau was in-charge of it for 18 years, as CEO of the Angau Hospital in the city of Lae.

He said at that time, they treated around 10 people every week.

"Mouth cancer is still a major problem for the Department of Health, for the Government of PNG, and for us as individuals," Dr Chalau said.

"We need to be serious about our health, we need to cut this traditional habits".

But many experts predict the situation is only set to get worse.

At a health symposium last year, a veteran PNG visitor Dr Chris Acott predicted mouth cancer cases would double in 12 years, and suggested that treatment could consume most of PNG's health budget within a few years.

A close up shot of a woman chewing betel nut.

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