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.

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