Amina Abubakar Bello FIRST LADY OF NIGER STATE
Married to governor of Niger state Alhaji Abubakar Sani Bello, Dr Amina L. Abubakar Bello is the first Lady of Niger State. She is an Obstetrician and Gynaecologist from the Ahmadu Bello University; a profession she chose because of her constant yearning to assist humanity. A member of Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), Amina’s research in medicine has contributed tremendously to the aspects of maternal mortality and reproductive health. She has also done research work on unsafe abortion, family planning and more. Born into the family of Gen. A. Abdulsalami Abubakar (rtd) and Honorable Justice Fati L. Abubakar, this essential woman is the founder of Raise Foundation, a Non-governmental Organisation which is focused on the reduction of Maternal, Neo-natal and Child death. It employs integrated approaches that are centred on reproductive rights, healthcare, education and empowerment of women and girls and also integrates creating awareness from breast and cervical cancer. Funke Babs-Kufeji had a chat with this extraordinary woman who told her all about the fight against breast cancer and more.
What was growing up like with parents who had prominent roles in nigerian government?
Growing up, my siblings and I had a very normal and happy childhood. At that time my parents’ position really did not have any influence on us. My father was an army officer who rose through the ranks until he became a General and my mum was a Lawyer who also rose to become a high court judge and eventually the Chief Justice of Niger state. For us, they were just our parents who raised us with firm hands. Who they were or their professions had no bearing on how we grew up. When my father became Head of State, I was already married. What happened with that however was that we lost our privacy. But we all found ways to adjust to it.
Who played a prominent role in making you the woman you are today?
Both my parents played significant roles in my life in different ways. I see my mother in myself in the way I raise my own children and conduct myself in my professional life. I see my father’s influence in the way I interact with people. A combination of these has made me the person I am today.
A Gynecologist and obstetrician by profession, how did you get involved in the fight against breast cancer?
As a gynecologist, my field deals in reproductive health. The prevention of cancers is one of the components of reproductive health and falls within my forte. Additionally, I have seen the lack of awareness of the disease as well as the misconceptions surrounding cancer in our environment. This has led to so many of our women presenting at late stages where hardly anything can be done for them. It therefore became necessary for me to take it up as one of our areas of focus for the foundation.
Do you just create awareness for it or are you actively involved in treating women who have the deadly disease?
My foundation is involved in creating awareness about cancer and the importance of early detection especially with regard to breast and cervical cancer. We also offer screening services aimed at early detection of the two cancers. Although we are not actively involved in the treatment, we raise funds for people with cancer and help in referring women to the hospitals that can offer them appropriate treatment.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women worldwide with millions of cases diagnosed every year. Africa has one of the lowest survivor incidences in the world, what is being done about it in nigeria and in your state, niger state?
The low incidence of survival in Nigeria, is as a result of the late presentation of most patients. Treatment at early stages of the disease is associated with a high cure rate. The focus is therefore is on prevention and early detection of the disease. I know that the Federal Ministry of Health currently has a plan on reviving the cancer treatment centres that we have in the country, which I am hoping will start working soon. In Niger state, RAiSE foundation is collaborating with the State Ministry of Health on cancer awareness and early detection in the state. We are also hoping that the State will come up with a comprehensive cancer control programme that will be implemented state wide which will not only ensure that cases are detected early and given the appropriate treatment, but will also focus on prevention of the cancers as a whole.
What will you say is the most accurate diagnostic protocol for early detection of breast cancer?
Prevention is one of the best strategies for cancer control. Having healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables, maintaining a healthy weight and regular exercise can help prevent cancer.
For any cancer, the most accurate diagnosis is obtained when a sample of the tissue or organ affected is taken and a histology is provided. This is a special test done to look at cells under a microscope which can show whether a tissue sample is cancerous or not. However, for breast cancer, a test called a mammogram, which is a kind of x-ray picture of the breast tissue, is the one diagnostic tool that has been found to be effective in detecting cancer of breast at an early stage. It is recommended that women over the age of 40 years should have this test done regularly in order to detect early disease. In terms of protocol, screening with regular mammograms, is an effective way for early detection of breast cancer.
so far in you race to fight breast cancer, what have you been able to achieve in niger state?
The RAiSE foundation cancerscreening centre was unveiled in Minna, the State capital in September of this year. This is the first of its kind in Niger state offering screening services for both breast and cervical cancer. The centre has a mammogram as well as an ultrasound machine that are being used to screen women for the disease. We have commenced screening and it is our hope that we will create mini screening centres in primary health care clinics in the local government areas across the three senatorial zones of the State so as to increase access for rural women. Prior to the unveiling of the centre, we had conducted screening services for both cervical and breast cancer in some local government areas in the state.
What are the symptoms you advice women to look for to detect breast cancer?
I would advise women to know how their breasts look and feel first. This will enable them detect quickly if an abnormality occurs. This can be achieved by doing a self-breast examination and this should be performed monthly as much as possible. All women should learn how to do self-examination. Symptoms that indicate an abnormality may include but are not limited to, swellings or lumps on the breast, nipple discharge which can be bloody or look like pus, ulceration of the skin of the breast, retraction of the nipples and breast pain.
how can women prevent the development of the deadly disease?
Prevention is one of the best strategies for cancer control. Having healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables, maintaining a healthy weight and regular exercise can help prevent cancer. Also the elimination of tobacco smoking and reduction in alcohol intake or its elimination entirely can also significantly prevent the development of cancer.
your nGo Raise Foundation also focuses on the reduction of maternal, neo-natal and child death
amongst other things, how do you prioritise on which aspect of your nGo needs more of your attention?
The approach the foundation has taken to provide our interventions is such that the various activities we undertake overlap each other. For example, the interventions for the reduction of maternal and child deaths includes awareness campaigns in addition to the provision of life saving kits and drugs for mothers and babies. When we go to communities for these campaigns, we give talks on cancer as well as maternal and child health. In the same way, the primary health care centres that will be the mini screening centres are the same centres where our maternal and child health interventions will be provided. We also provide interventions for women empowerment and girl-child education, each is given its own priority.
some time ago you announced that you would offer free services at the gynecology clinic of the Minna General hospital. so far, how many patients have benefitted from this initiative?
I really cannot say how many patients have benefitted because I wasn’t taking count. But I have been able to perform operations on quite a number of patients since I began the service. I have not been able to spend as much time as I would have liked in the hospital because of my other responsibilities, but I try as much as possible to work at least two days of the week.
how did your collaboration with Faith Fookes’ ngo, Bridgewise come to play?
Mrs Fookes and I connected through a programme that we were both invited to in November 2015. Bridgewise is mainly focused on the prevention and the eradication of obstetric fistula. This is a very distressing and dehumanizing condition that occurs when women sustain an injury to their bladder during the delivery process and occurs when labor is obstructed. These women end up leaking urine through their private parts and this can only be corrected surgically. Most women who have the condition are very poor and unable to afford the treatment they need. At the time we met, I was conducting a surgical camp for fistula patients in Niger state in collaboration with another foundation called Sani Bello Foundation. We got together and realized we had the same vision and decided to work together to create an effective fistula prevention programme through our NGOs
What works you have done together in this collaboration and how do you intend to proceed forward in future?
We have just completed our first camp for our collaboration. We conducted a fistula camp in Bida, Niger state where we pooled over 40 patients with fistula from different parts of the state and had 2 fistula surgeons from Katsina and Kano who came and operated on the women. We intend to conduct these camps at least three times in a year but we are currently working in collaboration with the State Ministry of Health on starting a fistula centre in Niger state where patients can come from anywhere in the country as long as they have fistula, and receive the treatment they need for free. We aim to create a fistula prevention programme that also encompasses rehabilitation and social integration of the patients. In Nigeria, there is currently a backlog of patients numbering up to 12,000 women who are awaiting repair in addition to the new cases that are occurring every day. There is an urgent need to treat these women and prevent more cases.
you must be a super woman with a demanding task such as being the first lady of niger state, running an nGo, being a doctor, a mother and wife, how do you balance all the aspects of your life so none is neglected?
I got married when I was in my third year of medical school and had my first child when I was in my fourth year. So I have had a lot of practice on juggling and multi -tasking! However, finding the balance is possible when you prioritize the different aspects of your life and manage your time well. For me my family comes first, so I manage my schedule around my family’s needs and so far, so good I have been able to manage well.
is there a continuity plan for your nGo for when your husband the Governor leaves office in niger state?
Yes there is. In fact, the NGO was founded on a principle of sustainability. The foundation is completely independent of Government and funded solely by some business ventures and donations from philanthropists, donor organizations and the likes. This is aimed at ensuring that the foundation’s work will continue irrespective of whether my husband is in office or not. Our hope is that we go from strength to strength making a difference to the lives of Nigerians.
Apart from improving the medical welfare and education of women in niger state, are there any other areas you will like to touch while you are First Lady?
I think I have my hands full as it is. But I am happy to support anything that will bring development to my State. Although we have been talking about women, our programmes will also extend to men and boys and one of the things I would really like to see happen is that our teeming youth become gainfully employed. I hope through our empowerment programmes, we are able to achieve this.
Any last words on breast cancer for our readers?
Breast cancer is real. Living a healthy life style can prevent breast cancer, but the best chance of survival is early detection. Please get involved in raising awareness for the disease and get yourself checked regularly.
However, finding the balance is possible when you prioritize the different aspects of your life and manage your time well. For me my family comes first, so I manage my schedule around my family’s needs and so far, so good I have been able to manage well.