Rob Craig’s untouched slice of his 66th birthday cake sat at the end of the table Tuesday morning in his office at Columbus’ First Presbyterian Church.
“I’ll get to it,” he said with a smile.
The pastor, unaware that a surprise party awaited Tuesday night, readily acknowledged that his life has been pretty sweet as is, without the need for birthday cake or frosting.
He said that even as he battles breast cancer, just diagnosed in July. It’s a rare illness for males, who represent less than 1 percent of all breast cancer cases, according to the American Cancer Society.
“I’m not totally sure I’m going to get a cure,” he said. “But I know I’m going to get a healing.”
Speaking as a Christian, he is referring to eternal life in heaven.
Yet the minister, preparing for a second surgery Monday to remove lymph nodes near the spot where his tumor grew, believes he will be healthy again.
“You go through waves (of concern),” he said, “especially at times such as waiting for my pathology report. That was scary.”
Yet he feels God’s peace and sustenance at the church where he assumed leadership in 2007, relocating to Columbus from a New Mexico retreat center post.
He shows and feels no bitterness today for having to face cancer again and again.
“When I got sick the first time (with late-stage Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1979), I did get depressed, and I did get angry,” he said. “And I may still do some of that this time, too.”
First Presbyterian members know him as a bright and compassionate leader. The Rev. Peggy Casteel, his associate pastor, has seen him meet weekly with a homeless, jobless church member. Craig has assisted with resumes and helped him find job contacts.
“He really knows how to relate to people,” Casteel said.
He has also seen compassion expressed toward him.
A mantle in Craig’s office holds homemade crosses made by members of his former church in Albuquerque, N.M. Leaders there hired him as their pastor even as he underwent treatment for that first bout with cancer that could have been fatal.
“That literally was a part of my healing,” he said, fondly recalling church members’ support and belief that he would survive.
He also bounced back from prostate cancer in 2004 when a simple surgery restored his health.
“I’m very grateful for health care professionals,” he said.
With his latest medical challenge, Craig first noticed a button-sized bump on his left breast as he shaved one morning this summer. After seeing his doctor, he went to Columbus Regional Health’s Breast Center, where a needle biopsy was performed.
Now, after a successful surgery in August to remove the tumor, he awaits chemotherapy, tentatively slated for November.
For spiritual support, he leans heavily on what he calls the Jesus prayer: “Savior Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.”
He found it in a meditative workshop just before his initial cancer surfaced more than 30 years ago.
“It was plunked down into my life at the very time I needed it,” he said.
In those days, the man who served as a chaplain alongside death-and-dying researcher Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wondered whether he might be facing his own end.
“My bargain with God was, ‘Let me see my (two) kids graduate,’” he said.
Today, daughter Callie is a neuroscientist in San Diego and son Will is an educator in New York.
“I think I ultimately got a pretty good deal,” he said, looking back.
Today, Craig gratefully watches his three granddaughters grow. He beamed over framed photos of them and others lining his office shelf. His 103-year-old mother, Hope resident Evelyn Craig, smiled from one of the pictures.
“I don’t think I’ll live to be 100,” he said. “But I’m definitely not done yet.”
Old enough to retire, he would rather keep working.
Church elder Sherry Stark said Craig still has lists of goals to tackle and social-justice issues to spotlight, to the benefit of others.
“I think he’ll keep going full-tilt as long as he can,” Stark said.
Besides, even amid his recent medical appointments, he’s missed only a couple of days at the office.
He laughed about sacrifices he’s made thus far during his illness.
“The golf course — there’s the loss,” said Craig, who plays even when the temperature dips into the 40s. “I figure since I can’t golf (because of a surgical incision), I might as well still work a little.”
Wife Sharon is happy he has felt good enough to keep ministering to the 175 who worship at First Presbyterian each week. But just a couple of days ago, she wondered if he should be resting a bit more.
“This is certainly not something a woman expects to experience with her spouse,” she said.
With this interview scheduled just minutes after finishing a routine check-up with his eye doctor, he shared confirmation that his vision is fine.
“These days,” he said, “it’s really nice to go to a medical appointment where someone says, ‘Everything is stable.’”
As he finished his thoughts, the cake was still at the end of the table, untouched.
Even on his birthday, other things — understandably — appeared more important.
The Rev. Rob Craig
HOMETOWN: Wooster, Ohio.
PROFESSION: Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Columbus.
FAMILY: Wife Sharon. Grown children Callie Craig of San Diego, Calif., and Will Craig of New York. Three granddaughters.
FIGHTING CANCER: Overcame Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1979, prostate cancer in 2004, and now is facing breast cancer caught early.
WHAT CANCER HAS TAUGHT HIM: “I do think it has caused me to relish each day.”