LONDON (Reuters) - Hollywood star Angelina Jolie has had a double mastectomy to reduce her chances of getting breast cancer and says she hopes her story will inspire other women fighting the life-threatening disease.
Jolie wrote in the New York Times on Tuesday the operation had made it easier for her to reassure her six children that she will not die young from cancer, like her own mother did at 56.
"We often speak of 'Mommy's mommy', and I find myself trying to explain the illness that took her away from us. They have asked if the same could happen to me," wrote Jolie, 37.
"I have always told them not to worry, but the truth is I carry a 'faulty' gene."
The Oscar-winning actress said her doctors had estimated she had an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer.
"Once I knew this was my reality, I decided to be proactive and to minimize the risk as much as I could. I made a decision to have a preventive double mastectomy," she said.
Partner and fellow Hollywood star Brad Pitt was by Jolie's side through three months of treatment that ended late in April, she said. The two became engaged last year.
"Having witnessed this decision firsthand, I find Angie's choice, as well as so many others like her, absolutely heroic," Pitt told London's Evening Standard newspaper.
"All I want is for her to have a long and healthy life, with myself and our children. This is a happy day for our family."
Jolie said that even though she had kept silent about her treatment while it was going on, she hoped her story would now help other women.
"I choose not to keep my story private because there are many women who do not know that they might be living under the shadow of cancer. It is my hope that they, too, will be able to get gene tested."
Breast cancer alone kills about 458,000 people each year, according to the World Health Organization. It is estimated that one in 300 to one in 500 women carry a BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 gene mutation, as Jolie does.
CNN anchor Zoraida Sambolin announced on Tuesday that she had breast cancer and was also getting a double mastectomy.
Sambolin, who anchors CNN's "Early Start" morning show, discussed her condition on the show while talking about Jolie's procedure.
"I struggled for weeks trying to figure out how to tell you that I had been diagnosed with breast cancer and was leaving to have surgery," Sambolin, 47, said on Facebook. "Then ... Angelina Jolie shares her story of a double mastectomy and gives me strength and an opening."
Jolie's decision was also welcomed by breast cancer patients and charities.
Richard Francis, head of research at the Breakthrough Breast Cancer charity in Britain, said it demonstrated the importance of educating women with the gene fault.
"For women like Angelina it's important that they are made fully aware of all the options that are available, including risk-reducing surgery and extra breast screening," Francis told Reuters.
Breast Cancer Campaign Chief Executive Delyth Morgan said Jolie's openness in talking about her experience and her decision to have surgery would raise awareness of the disease and its risk.
Jolie won a 1999 best supporting actress Oscar for "Girl, Interrupted".
She lends her star power to a range of humanitarian campaigns, including serving more than 10 years as a goodwill ambassador for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
In April, she urged governments to step up efforts to bring wartime sex offenders to justice.
(Additional reporting by Elaine Lies and Belinda Goldsmith; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Pravin Char)