NEW YORK (Reuters) - Oscar-winning film star Angelina Jolie revealed on Tuesday that she underwent a double mastectomy after learning she had inherited a high risk of breast cancer and said she hoped her story would inspire other women fighting the life-threatening disease.
Jolie, an actress who has long embodied Hollywood glamour and has in recent years drawn nearly as much attention for her globe-trotting work on behalf of refugees as for her role as a celebrity mom, disclosed her choice in an op-ed column in the New York Times.
The 37-year-old performer, raising a family with fellow film star and fiance Brad Pitt, wrote that she went through with the operation in part to reassure her six children that she would not die young from cancer, as her own mother did at age 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.
"I have always told them not to worry, but the truth is I carry a 'faulty' gene."
The actress, who won an Oscar as best supporting actress for her 1999 role in the film "Girl, Interrupted," said she opted for the surgery after her doctors had estimated she had an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer, due to an inherited genetic mutation.
"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. She said her breast cancer risk had dropped to under 5 percent as a result.
Celebrities, cancer survivors and doctors expressed admiration for her openness, saying she was an inspiration for other women.
"I commend Angelina Jolie for her courage and thoughtfulness in sharing her story today regarding her mastectomy. So brave!" tweeted singer Sheryl Crow, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006.
Singer Kylie Minogue, another cancer survivor, thanked Jolie for helping women, as did television host Giuliana Rancic, who also had surgery after being diagnosed with the disease.
"Angelina Jolie reveals double mastectomy. Proud of her for using her incredible platform to educate women," Rancic said on Twitter.
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 opted for reconstruction with implants. Breast tissue was removed during surgery and temporary fillers were inserted in their place. Nine weeks later the surgery was completed with the implants.
"On a personal note, I do not feel any less of a woman," she wrote. "I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity."
The actress decided to be open about her surgery after finishing treatment to help women who might be living under the shadow of cancer.
"It is my hope that they, too, will be able to get gene tested," she said.
Breast cancer 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."
Dr Chet Nastala, a breast surgeon at PRMA Plastic Surgery in San Antonio, Texas, said Jolie's fame and openness about her treatment will have a big impact on women faced with the same decision.
"It is difficult to go public," he said in an interview. "It shows a lot of courage."
In past 10 years the PRMA practice has done about 5,000 reconstructive breast surgeries and about 20-30 percent have been for preventative mastectomies.
Dr. Kristi Funk, director of the Pink Lotus Breast Center in Beverly Hills where Jolie was treated, also applauded her choice.
"We hope that the awareness she is raising around the world will save countless lives," said Funk at a brief news conference outside the clinic.
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.
Jolie also lends her star power to a range of humanitarian causes, 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 Paul Casciato, Eric Kelsey, Steve Gorman, Elaine Lies and Belinda Goldsmith; Editing by Mary Milliken and Cynthia Osterman