Angelina Jolie's Fear and Inspiration: Her Beloved Mother's Death from Cancer
05/14/2013 AT 10:55 AM EDT
Not much is known about the details of Marcheline Bertrand's seven-year battle with ovarian cancer. She was an intensely private person. But the actress's death in January 2007 was clearly a catalyst for her daughter Angelina Jolie's decision to undergo a double mastectomy.
Tellingly, Jolie began Tuesday's New York Times op-ed, in which she revealed and explained her course of preventive treatment, by invoking her beloved mother, who was 56 when she died.
"She held out long enough to meet the first of her grandchildren and to hold them in her arms," wrote Jolie, 37. "But my other children will never have the chance to know her and experience how loving and gracious she was."
Jolie adds: "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."
It certainly could. Jolie's decision to undergo the double mastectomy hinged largely on the fact that she carries a "faulty" gene, BRCA1, which is hereditary and may indeed have caused Bertrand's cancer. Jolie's doctors told her she had an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer.
To Jolie, her mother's example was all she needed – her untimely death, yes, but also her love of life and family, which Jolie has long wanted to emulate, just with a different ending.
"There are no words to express what an amazing woman and mother she was. She was our best friend," Jolie and her brother, James Haven, told PEOPLE exclusively after their mother's death.
With six children of her own now with partner Brad Pitt, Jolie would like to be their best friend for a long time to come.