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Massage and aromatherapist, feminist, artist, kayaker, tree hugger, free spirit. Born April 5, 1949, in Ottawa; died July 6, 2013, in Toronto of brain cancer, aged 64.

The eldest of three children born to Jean McGuire Edmiston (née Collins), Diane McGuire was a self-confessed thrill seeker and a restless soul. At 18, she left her hometown of Montreal for California in hopes of breaking into acting and dance. After appearing in a commercial or two and working for a time as a stripper, she returned to Canada in 1970, took a few courses at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown, then gravitated to Vancouver two years later.

On the west coast, by her own account, she "came alive and fell in love," came out as a lesbian, spent a lot of time in the woods communing with nature, and worked as a youth counsellor for various community groups. This was the beginning of her lifelong commitment to social activism and justice.

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In 1981, restlessness (or "divine discontent," as Diane liked to say) struck again and she drifted to Toronto, where she eventually enrolled in massage school and registered as a therapist at the age of 37. This late career choice ultimately enabled her to make a difference in hundreds of lives as a pioneer in the use of massage and aromatherapy for people living with HIV/AIDS.

The disease was little understood in the 1980s, and even health-care professionals tended to shun those who were infected. This was the backdrop against which Casey House, the first freestanding AIDS hospice in Ontario, opened its doors 25 years ago in Toronto. Soon after, Diane was hired there as a massage therapist in its resident care program.

Diane quickly made the position her own. Her massage therapy room, an oasis of calm, was adjacent to reception so the scent of the aromatic oils she used in her treatments greeted every visitor immediately upon entering the house. In her 20 years in this position, Diane took massage and aromatherapy into the community, teaching other therapists well beyond the hospice's walls. By the time she retired in 2009, however, she felt burned out and in need of personal renewal.

Retirement allowed Diane the chance to reinvent herself. The Toronto School of Art offered her a means of awakening and channelling her innate creativity. Over the next few years, she covered the walls of her small apartment with her own colourful drawings, paintings and collages. Art became her new identity and a haven ("As long as I can create something beautiful every day, I'm happy"). It was also a significant comfort after her cancer diagnosis last January.

A lifetime working in palliative care had made Diane a tireless advocate for the dying and shaped her response to her own illness. She took charge of her care plan, accepting radiation therapy to buy time for putting her affairs in order but declining chemotherapy. Always outspoken, she was quick to let staff at Kensington Hospice know when she was pleased with her care – and when she was not. Always a teacher, she left this life determined to show us all the meaning of "dying with dignity."

Francine Geraci is Diane's friend.

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