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Cherry Hill woman battling cancer dies before art show debuts: ‘I’m going to paint what’s in my heart’

Lisa Semple died two weeks before her art show Faces of Cancer opened in Cherry Hill. She hoped to share -through her work - the stories of fellow cancer patients, some of them friends and family, others strangers.

George Semple poses next to a self portrait of his late wife, Lisa, at the Cherry Hill Library in Cherry Hill. She made portraits of fellow cancer patients before she died.
George Semple poses next to a self portrait of his late wife, Lisa, at the Cherry Hill Library in Cherry Hill. She made portraits of fellow cancer patients before she died.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

In August 2018, Lisa Semple was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer that soon left her with one working arm. That notwithstanding, she pressed through the physical and emotional pain of her illness and spent the last three months of her life painting 19 portraits of strangers and loved ones.

“It was a bucket-list item for her,” said her husband, George. “Eventually her goal was to retire, return to painting, and then have a gallery one day."

Using only her right arm, she painted, designed, and curated her own exhibit, “Faces of Cancer,” which opened in January at the Cherry Hill Public Library and ends Thursday.

She never lived to see the show. Semple, 50, a mother of three, died Dec. 23.

Eighteen months earlier, doctors had told her she had an aggressive form of breast cancer called triple-negative. It progressed swiftly. Before it took its toll, Semple was an avid runner, a teaching assistant at Cherry Hill’s Sharp Elementary School, and 1990 graduate of Moore College of Art and Design. As an “advocate for the underdog," she made sure other people were cared for, that gave her purpose, said her husband, who works in IT for the State of New Jersey.

He recalled a story of how Lisa stood up to a neighborhood bully when she was a teenager. “She was happy to help someone who may be a square peg, and look out for them, guide them," he said. “It’s OK to be a square peg, we’re all square pegs in the end."

Semple had been told she didn’t have much longer to live after returning from a family trip to Watkins Glen, N.Y., in August. It was at that point she painted the first piece in her show, Tears Behind the Smile. A solemn but honest self-portrait of the way she felt at the time of the news.

Colette Desrochers, a breast cancer survivor who is a pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a subject of Lisa’s paintings, said Semple’s self-portrait reminded her of her own experience.

"I saw the tears behind the smile,” said Desrochers, the Semples' longtime neighbor in Cherry Hill. “It’s something that anybody who’s had cancer recognizes. Everyone asks you how you are, wants to know how you are doing, and you tell everyone you’re fine, you smile and keep going.

“But I could see what was behind the portrait,” she said.

Semple grew up in Medford Lakes, where she would ride bikes and swim in the lake with her friend Heather Caldwell. A friend of Semple’s since the two were 10 years old, Caldwell, a skin cancer survivor, is among the subjects of Semple’s exhibit. The two continued to run and walk the paths they used to ride bikes on together as kids, even late into Semple’s battle with cancer.

When Semple’s diagnosis turned terminal in August, Caldwell recalled that her longtime friend’s perspective on life began to change.

“I’m past caring what people think about my style or whatever,” she remembered Semple telling her. “I’m going to paint what’s in my heart, what I’m feeling.”

After Semple finished her self-portrait the terminally ill woman experienced a rush of inspiration, Caldwell said. Semple wanted to take her efforts further and tell the stories of other people with cancer. The following week, she painted a portrait of her college roommate and fellow breast cancer survivor, Jennifer Croft, and days later, she started on Caldwell’s portrait. Soon after, Semple began receiving photos sent in by families and survivors of cancer after she reached out to friends, fellow cancer patients she met during treatments, and through posts on social media.

Working from those photographs, she painted the portraits of a 10-year-old boy who was suffering from cancer and she did a portrait of Caldwell’s 95-year-old grandmother. Among her other subjects were a 19-year-old engineering student who died of a brain tumor in 1990, a couple who died of cancer in 2017 a month apart from each other, and a professional dancer who was diagnosed with leukemia at age 17.

Semple’s goal was to bring a lasting memory to the survivors and families of people with cancer.

“I think when you look at it all, what you see are stories of love and courage through so many of these people," Caldwell said. “Whether they lost their battle, or whether they’re still fighting, you see the supports that were in place.”

Reggie Wu, a Cherry Hill native and survivor of testicular cancer, was another subject of Semple’s work. A guitarist and keyboardist of the hair-metal band Heaven’s Edge, Wu found out he had cancer 10 years ago. He didn’t know Semple, but he admires her work. And he also hopes the portraits of cancer’s wide toll will inspire people who see them to be more proactive about cancer checkups.

“Hopefully people think about their wellness,” Wu said. “A lot of my friends put this stuff off and don’t think twice about it. [Early detection] is so important. Cancer can get anybody, from a 10-year-old boy to me."

George Semple, for his part, hopes to continue his wife’s efforts to share the stories of cancer patients. He would like her exhibit to be displayed in cancer treatment facilities or other public galleries. He also wants to start a nonprofit organization in Lisa’s name and donate art supplies to cancer patients or others with a terminal illness in the hope that they, too, might find painting a salve for their pain and a way to find meaning and joy.