From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
She was facing down the most frightening challenge of her life, but on Valentine's Day of this year, Angelina Jolie was focused on nothing more than dinosaurs, bugs and precious family time. When the star visited the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles on Feb. 14 with fiancé Brad Pitt and their 4-year-old twins Vivienne and Knox, "the kids could barely contain themselves, but Brad and Angie spoke to them in quiet voices to calm them down," says an observer. "They stayed back and let the kids explore fossils and insects on their own. They all seemed to have fun." Before Mom and Dad headed out for a romantic dinner later that evening, they gathered all six children together for a family gift exchange - the very sort of tradition Jolie's mom, Marcheline Bertrand, delighted in fostering during Jolie's own childhood. "The older kids had made art projects at school that they gave Brad and Angie," says a family insider. "Every special calendar day sparks a big celebration for them."

It would be the last such celebration before the surgery that Jolie would quietly undergo just two days later: On Feb. 16 - and with Pitt, 49, by her side - the 37-year-old Oscar winner underwent a preventive double mastectomy at the Pink Lotus Breast Center in Beverly Hills. In a candid op-ed published in the New York Times on May 14, the actress explained the gut-wrenching decision as a "proactive" choice that was "not easy" but "is one I am very happy I made." Noting that her mother died of ovarian cancer at age 56, and that she herself had tested positive for the "faulty" BRCA1 gene (see box), Jolie - who kept up her globe-trotting humanitarian work with trips to Congo and London during her ordeal - said the operation reduced her chances of developing breast cancer from 87 percent "to under 5 percent. I can tell my children that they don't need to fear they will lose me to breast cancer." Jolie experienced no complications and is still full of energy, says a source: "She is doing well."

Pitt, whom she praised for being with her "for every minute of the surgeries," offered his own words of support. Calling Jolie's choice "absolutely heroic," he added, "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." Pitt's mother, Jane, echoed that. "We're so very proud of Angie," she said. "This means so much to our family, especially our grandchildren. We love her dearly."

Jolie brings her powerful voice to an issue often burdened by fear and shame. "When a young, sexy woman electively, because of the remarkable advancements in technology, allows some of her most sensuous parts to be removed in order to save her life so she can be here for her kids, that's a seismic shift," says Dr. Mehmet Oz. At least publicly, she hasn't skipped a beat, traveling to a remote refugee camp in Congo as part of her United Nations work five weeks after surgery. Thinner than usual, Jolie still "put in longer hours than any of us," says British journalist Cathy Newman, who was on the trip. "There was never a word of complaint or any sign of the pain she may have been in." British Foreign Secretary William Hague told Sky News, "She gave no sign that she was undergoing such treatment. She's a very brave lady."

Jolie's image, of course, is also tied to her iconic beauty and sex appeal. But in choosing to have her breasts removed, "I do not feel any less of a woman," she wrote in the Times. "I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity." Having undergone reconstructive surgery on April 20, she said her children - Maddox, 11, Pax, 9, Zahara, 8, Shiloh, 7, and the twins - "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. And they know that I love them and will do anything to be with them as long as I can."

Because of BRCA1, Jolie still faces a high risk of developing ovarian cancer, which her doctors estimated at 50 percent. She's planning to have further surgery to remove her ovaries. Some doctors recommend patients undergo the surgery by age 40, though it may trigger early menopause. "I started with the breasts, as my risk of breast cancer is higher than my risk of ovarian cancer, and the surgery is more complex," wrote Jolie.

Her own mother - or "Mommy's mommy" as Bertrand, who lost her grueling seven-year cancer battle in 2007, is known to Jolie's children - had her life cut short by ovarian cancer. An aspiring actress who gave up her career to raise Jolie and her brother James Haven, 40, after splitting from Jon Voight in 1976, the very private Bertrand "was grace incarnate," Jolie told 60 Minutes in 2011. "I will never be as good a mother as she was." Noting that her maternal grandmother died at a young age as well, she told Esquire in 2007, "There is no longevity on my mother's side of the family ... But [my mother] lived to see her grandchildren, lived to see both me and my brother in a nice place ... She waited till everyone was okay. Then she closed her eyes."

Jolie is now focused on providing maternal strength and safety for her own brood. "My sister, like our mother, always puts her children first," says Haven. "I am so grateful to be her brother." In the weeks since her surgeries, the actress and Pitt worked to maintain calm and routine for their children. To the kids, "life was normal," says a source, and they didn't notice anything amiss. The family insider says "Angie might have seemed a bit more tired than usual and they have had more movie nights [at home], but otherwise it seemed very normal." While Jolie's regular ob/gyn made occasional in-home visits before her surgery, the kids have kept to school and activity schedules, and during Easter weekend the family enjoyed an egg hunt at their Santa Barbara home. "The kids were ecstatic," says the family insider. "Brad and Angie seemed very happy. They were very affectionate and sweet to each other." Then again, adds the source, "Brad always dotes on Angie."

Now more than ever. Writing about the ordeal, Jolie said that she and Pitt "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." Engaged since April 2012, the couple are juggling movie projects and are in the early stages of wedding planning. But Jolie's focus is on her kids. Her decision to have the mastectomy "shows how much Angie values being a mother," says the insider. "Her kids always come first to her."

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  • Mary Green/N.Y.C.,
  • Pernilla Cedenheim/L.A..