Daughter finds silver lining in mother's terminal cancer

Editor's Note: Carla Willson passed away on Friday May 29, 2015. She was surrounded by family and friends dressed in 80s attire.


LOVELAND, Colo. -- When 67-year-old Carla Willson found out she had terminal cancer -- and that treatment would only prolong her life, not save it -- the divorced mother of four was understandably depressed and ready to give up.

Then one day her youngest daughter Robyn suggested an unconventional treatment -- not to cure the cancer, just the attitude.

"I didn't want to, because I thought it was silly," said Carla.

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Robyn Willson, left, with her mother Carla, right, wearing red noses during Carla's chemotherapy
WILLSON FAMILY

Her daughter's idea: a nose job. One day they wore red clown noses to a chemotherapy session. Carla says the noses got "the ball rolling."

"We started making it (chemo) fun," said Robyn.

After the noses, every time they came to the McKee Cancer Center in Loveland, Colorado, Robyn convinced her mom to wear a different costume: There was tie-dye, tutus, bumbling workmen outfits and bumbling bees.

On one occasion they went as Alice in Wonderland and the Mad Hatter. They always bring little gifts for the nurses and other patients. And they say this cheerfulness has had a profound effect on Carla's attitude.

"It was like a switch," said Robyn.

"The mood changed -- dramatically," added Carla.

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Robyn and Carla dressed up as Alice in Wonderland and the Mad Hatter
CBS News

What started with the costumes has now spread to all aspects of their lives -- a phenomenon they have dubbed "Operation Choose Joy."

"We couldn't stop it and we couldn't contain it," said Carla. "And it hasn't been put down since."

Of course, laughter and a positive attitude can only do so much. The cancer will eventually take Carla's life. But when that time comes, this Alice in Wonderland says she'll be able to look back on her mother's cancer fight through a truly unique looking glass.

"I think that is one of the reasons why we keep doing it and why I'm so adamant about it, because I think that I'm going to remember this as something that we enjoyed," said Robyn.

Cancer treatment -- something they enjoyed. I guess Alice can cross that off the list of impossible things.

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  • Steve Hartman

    Steve Hartman has been a CBS News correspondent since 1998, having served as a part-time correspondent for the previous two years.