Jake Dye / Peninsula Clarion
Charlie Stephens sits with a copy of his book, “Passion Over Pain,” on Monday in the Peninsula Clarion offices in Kenai.

Jake Dye / Peninsula Clarion Charlie Stephens sits with a copy of his book, “Passion Over Pain,” on Monday in the Peninsula Clarion offices in Kenai.

Telling his story

Local author looks back at cancer and recovery

Charlie Stephens is a retired school teacher from Nikiski who grew up in Moose Pass near Seward. He recently self-published a book titled “Passion Over Pain” about growing up in a small town on the Kenai Peninsula, his love for sports, and the way that love helped him as he recovered from a tough battle with cancer as a teenager.

That book is available now at River City Books or on Amazon, and Stephens will be hosting a book signing Saturday at River City Books from noon to 4 p.m.

The book is broken into three sections, the first filled with charming vignettes of a childhood spent in Moose Pass in the 1960s and 1970s, the second a more harrowing account of Stephens’ struggle with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and the third detailing his recovery.

Stephens said that in school, sports were everything to him. When he battled cancer, that was taken from him. He said that the middle section is pretty challenging as he describes tough treatments, declining health and low self-esteem.

“I did cross-country running, basketball and track, and I was pretty good at all of them,” he said. “Sports were my thing, and it was gone. I thought I had nothing to offer.”

Through it all, Stephens said, it was having a passion in his life that made it possible to move through the hard times. He said for him that passion was sports, but it could be fishing, cooking, reading, theater, volunteering or anything else.

“I really wanted this to be more for kids,” Stephens said Monday. “I wanted fourth through eighth graders to try and look for a passion in life, and maybe this would help guide them toward it.”

The size of the book, he conceded, is “counterproductive to that.” It’s pretty imposing at 561 pages. But Stephens said the feedback he’s received has been positive — from a review on Amazon to interest and engagement from a teacher at Kenai Middle School who’s considering using parts in his curriculum.

That feedback, he said, has centered on the nature of the storytelling and the “inspiring” message.

Some of that feedback came from the very friends who are named in the book, people who grew up with Stephens and who naturally feature in the stories of his youth.

“They said they read the book and it made them laugh and it made them cry,” Stephens said. “And I thought, man, that’s exactly what I hope for. When you read something and it brings out emotion in you — to me it’s special.”

Stephens worked locally for years as an elementary teacher, and he said that background drove him to target kids with the work. He said the writing began as early as 1984, when in a writing seminar he decided to engage with his experience with cancer. He said while he was teaching he would plug away at the Word document from time to time, but then with retirement he pursued the work in earnest.

“I’m not a writer,” he said. “I’m a PE teacher by trade.”

Stephens self-published the book through Kindle Direct Publishing, and he didn’t hire an editor for the work — he said his sister and other friends read through it and gave feedback.

Part of the drive to tell the story, Stephens said, was borne of regret. In the forward of the book, and in discussion with the Clarion, he described an experience in college in 1981 when he had the chance to share the story he would later go on to write. He said at the time he let that opportunity pass him by.

A work of decades now held in a single tome in his hand, Stephens said he’s working to get the book in the hands of as many young people as he can. He said he’s reaching out to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, donating copies to the library in his hometown, and he’s made it as easy as possible to share a digital copy in environments like schools.

Reconnecting with his mental state as a young person battling with cancer, was “like counseling,” he said.

“It really helped me see how down I was and then also helped me see how many people really helped me,” he said. “How many people in my life helped shape who I was.”

Stephens said that writing the book helped him to grapple with the regrets he still carried from years of wondering what his life would have been like without cancer, and that that was part of what he wanted to teach as part of that outreach — the value of telling his story.

“Even if I never published this and never put it out there it was very valuable to me mentally,” he said. “I was still back as a teenager crying about what could have been.”

“Passion Over Pain” can be found at River City Books or on Amazon. A book signing will be hosted by author Charlie Stephens on Saturday from noon to 4 p.m.

Reach reporter Jake Dye at jacob.dye@peninsulaclarion.com.

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