Book Review: ‘Words to Live By’ anthology gives cancer diagnosis a voice 




For the Recorder 

Published: 12-08-2023 4:12 PM

Book Review: “Words to Live By,” created by John Bos, Pam Roberts, Keith Carver, and James McDonald (Cancer Connection, 130 pages, $20)

John Bos first met Pam Roberts almost two decades ago when he took part in one of her “Spirit of the Written Word” workshops for cancer survivors.

I know both John and Pam, although I wouldn’t say that I know either of them well. I, too, went to a workshop series led by Pam. My workshop was at the hospice center in Greenfield and was designed for people who were recently bereaved.

I was already a writer then, but Pam’s exercises in writing and sharing helped me make my writing both more personal and more meaningful. She also helped me bond with my fellow writers and mourners around the room.

I was therefore intrigued to learn that these two cancer survivors had collaborated on “Words to Live By.”

This stunning book was produced in conjunction with two other cancer survivors, photographer Keith Carver and book designer James McDonald. John told me he met both Keith and James through Cancer Connection as well.

“Words to Live By” combines 50 poems and essays with Carver’s photography of the natural world. In general, the photographs convey feelings of serenity and comfort. Some of the poems do the same; others simply process feelings.

Readers will recognize many of the names of the poets who contributed to the book. Some are internationally known, like Wendell Berry and Rumi. Others are regionally known, like Molly Scott and the late Carol Purington. Others are first-time writers who blossomed in Pam Roberts’s classes.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Mystery shrouds case of injured moose euthanized in Sunderland
Montague lands $4.92M EPA grant to demolish Strathmore mill
Propane explosion causes no injuries, but destroys Northfield camper
‘Such a great honor:’ Greenfield’s Kelly Doton to be inducted into the USA Field Hockey Hall of Fame on Friday
$338K fraud drains town coffers in Orange
48th annual Bernardston Gas Engine Show expected to be biggest event yet

Pam told me, “I love how this anthology includes both the work of famous poets and those who are not famous (yet!).”

Some of their writings deal directly with cancer: its diagnosis, its treatments, its effects on the body and soul.

Others merely allude to cancer as they explore people’s relationships with others, with the natural world, or with death. Every piece is beautifully laid out with one of Keith Carver’s colorful nature photographs.

In their introduction, John and Pam say that they hope the book will help people who have been diagnosed with cancer realize that they are not alone and that a cancer diagnosis can be life affirming.

It also suggests that readers try their hands at writing their own stories and poems, prompted by the poems or the photographs or by anything they choose.

I have not (yet anyway) received a cancer diagnosis. Nevertheless, I found much to savor and learn from in the book. It reminded me that life’s hardest moments — the ones in which we come face to face with death — teach us that life is a gift, one we need to savor every day.

“Words to Live By” is available at Boswell’s Books in Shelburne Falls, Roundabout Books in Greenfield, and Broadside Books in Northampton. It may also be ordered (with a $3.95 shipping fee) from Cancer Connection at

All proceeds from the book go to Cancer Connection in Northampton.

Cancer Connection has several events coming up this month, including a holiday Open House on Sunday, Dec. 10, from 2 to 4 p.m. and a Whole Foods/Plant-Based Cooking Class at Paul & Elizabeth’s Restaurant in Northampton on Saturday, Dec. 16. For further details, see the Cancer Connection website.

Tinky Weisblat is an award-winning cookbook author and singer known as the Diva of Deliciousness. Visit her website,