By Janelle Burrell

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – A mother who was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer when her sons were young is hoping her story helps empower other women. Now that her sons are older and more independent, she has dedicated much of her energy to educating women about breast cancer and is working to close the gap when it comes to breast cancer deaths in the African American community.

(credit: CBS3)

Her beaming smile and encouraging spirit are what you may first notice about Erika Wimms.

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But she’s shared her story with many.

“I was 35. I had a 3-year-old and 6-year-old and I felt a lump,” Wimms said.

Thirteen years ago, her journey took an unexpected turn. After finding that lump, she decided to skip a biopsy and go straight for surgery.

“If it was cancer, it would be gone. If not, oh well, I have a scar. And fortunately, I did that, because I had triple negative breast cancer, which is the most aggressive form of breast cancer for black women in particular,” Wimms said.

Even though doctors found the cancer early, it had already spread to her lymph nodes.

“It was difficult,” Wimms said. “I put my attention into my children and into recovering and making sure I was here for them.”

(credit: CBS3)

After eight long months of treatment, Wimms was on the path to remission. She then started speaking publicly about her experience.

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“I felt like this was my passion,” Wimms said. “I’m a teacher. I love my job and that definitely was my calling. That is my calling. And this became my passion.”

As a community ambassador for Komen, she visits churches, senior centers, health fairs, and community events spreading awareness — particularly in the black community.

African American women die from breast cancer nearly 40% more than Caucasian women. They are often diagnosed at later stages and are diagnosed younger and with more aggressive types of the disease.

For this second-grade teacher, it’s all about education.

“You’re put on this earth for a reason, mine was definitely was to teach and now it’s definitely to teach breast health and resources out there,” Wimms said.

The Susan G. Komen More Than Pink event is one of Wimms’ favorite events that she participates in. Last year she was front and center among the survivors who made their way down the Art Museum steps in their show of solidarity. The mission is always part of her message.

“Cancer is a horrible thing, but you can recover from it and you can take the horrible event and turn it into something that becomes a life lesson and becomes a blessing to other people,” Wimms said.

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Janelle Burrell