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Victoria artist finds joy amid throes of cancer

Last July, Tasha Diamant — best known in Victoria for her nude performance art — fell into severe depression. Although Diamant has a long history of depression, she said it was one of her worst episodes.
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Tasha Diamant with the banner neighbourhood schoolchildren made to cheer her up: "I feel the cancer is blessed energy."

Last July, Tasha Diamant — best known in Victoria for her nude performance art — fell into severe depression.

Although Diamant has a long history of depression, she said it was one of her worst episodes. Then, to make matters worse, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

Yet despite chemotherapy treatments and an uncertain future, Diamant said she has never been more joyful.

“I am the happiest person in the universe, I feel like,” she said. “I am so grateful to be alive. Just to come home to my family and be alive. It’s been a transformative experience for me.”

Over the past decade, Diamant, a trained artist, has done about 100 performances in which she eventually stripped naked. She calls this ongoing series the Human Body Project.

Some of these were “vulnerability vigils” — intended to express humanity’s vulnerability within society — that took place outdoors in Victoria, while others were for workshops and Fringe theatre festivals.

Diamant’s bout of depression started in July. “It was really intense. I would say not quite suicidal, but in the realm of thinking: ‘How can I go on?’ ”

Despite this, she was still able to teach at Royal Roads University, where she is an associate faculty member in the communications and culture department.

Soon after, the 54-year-old mother of two felt severely nauseated during a camping trip. She noticed her belly was distended. Too ill to drive herself, she asked her husband to take her to the doctor.

Diamant was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She was admitted to Victoria General Hospital on Aug. 27. Last week, she returned home after a month-long stay at Victoria General and Royal Jubilee hospitals.

Now living with a cancerous mass of about 15 centimetres, Diamant is undergoing chemotherapy. Treatments are expected to last up to six months. Surgery is a likelihood, possibly followed by radiation therapy.

Doctors say her diagnosis comes with a 30 to 50 per cent survival rate.

Friends and family have rallied. Children and teachers at Lake Hill Elementary School painted a banner of a sunrise and flowers, then attached it to the fence across from Diamant’s house to cheer her up.

Not that she needs cheering up.

“For me, the cancer has been transformative,” said the smiling artist, her head shaven.

Dr. Douglas McGregor, a palliative-care physician at Victoria Hospice, said it’s not uncommon for people suffering depression to gain a sense of purpose after a cancer diagnosis. That’s because dealing with the disease provides a tangible goal.

“It does sometimes release them from that demoralized stage. They have a clarity they didn’t have before,” he said.

Nancy Payeur, a team leader with the B.C. Cancer Agency’s Vancouver Island Centre, agreed that cancer can help put one’s life into perspective. “If you have been struggling emotionally, a cancer diagnosis can jar people: ‘Oh my God, life is short and life is precious. And what can I do to become healthier?’ ”

However, both McGregor and Payeur said a state of joy such as Diamant’s is uncommon.

Diamant attributes her newfound happiness partly to the fact she has established a closer relationship with her parents and brothers since her diagnosis. Previously, she felt detached from that side of her family. “That just evaporated for me,” she said. “They love me. I love them.”

Diamant said the Human Body Project had a therapeutic function. The performances were intended to counteract feelings of being “disconnected,” not only from other people, but herself. Now, she feels better about herself.

“I feel the cancer is blessed energy that came to give me those beautiful lessons, so I could let go of some of those false ideas of disconnection,” she said.

Diamant plans to continue the Human Body Project once she’s well enough to do so.

“I’ll still disrobe,” she said, “but maybe in a more joyful way.”

achamberlain@timescolonist.com