Angelina Jolie is taking no chances. The actress, director and mother of six, 37, underwent a preventative double mastectomy in February 2013, she reveals in a frank, moving essay in the Tuesday, May 14 edition of the New York Times. Recalling the 2007 cancer death of mother Marcheline Bertrand at age 56 -- whom her younger children never got to meet -- Jolie shares that she carries a "fault" breast cancer gene, BRCA1. "My doctors estimated that I had an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer, although the risk is different in the case of each woman."
"Once I knew that this was my reality," the Maleficent star writes, "I decided to be proactive and to minimize the risk as much I could. I made a decision to have a preventive double mastectomy." Late last month, Jolie completed three months of procedures.
"During that time I have been able to keep this private and to carry on with my work," explains the Oscar winner. "But I am writing about it now because I hope that other women can benefit from my experience."
The UNHCR special envoy then details the long process: A "nipple delay" procedure on Feb. 2, and major surgery, in which breast tissue is removed, two weeks later. "You wake up with drain tubes and expanders in your breasts," the star says. "It does feel like a scene out of a science-fiction film."
Nine weeks later, Jolie underwent breast reconstruction surgery with the use of implants.
"There have been many advances in this procedure in the last few years, and the results can be beautiful," she assures her readers. Noting that she's "happy" with her decision, Jolie notes that her chances of developing breast cancer have decreased from 87 percent to 5 percent.
"I can tell my children that they don’t need to fear they will lose me to breast cancer," she says. "It is reassuring that they see nothing that makes them uncomfortable. They can see my small scars and that’s it. Everything else is just Mommy, the same as she always was."
The worldwide sex symbol adds that she does "not feel any less of a woman" and that the decision makes her feel "empowered . . I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity."
Jolie went through the process at the Pink Lotus Breast Center in Beverly Hills -- with fiance Brad Pitt at her side. "I am fortunate to have a partner, Brad Pitt, who is so loving and supportive," she writes.
"Brad was [there] for every minute of the surgeries," Jolie recalls of the actor, 49. "We managed to find moments to laugh together. We knew this was the right thing to do for our family and that it would bring us closer. And it has."
"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," Jolie says of her decision to share her struggle. (The BRCA1 and BRCA1 tests cost over $3,000 in the United States, making detection a financial burden for many women. "It has got to be a priority to ensure that more women can access gene testing and lifesaving preventative treatment," she points out.)
"Life comes with many challenges," she concludes. "The ones that should not scare us are the ones we can take on and take control of."