Pope Francis embraces Cheryl Tobin, who has stage four cancer, during his general audience at the Vatican may 11. Tobin is praying for a miracle.


Pope Francis embraces Cheryl Tobin, who has stage four cancer, during his general audience at the Vatican May 11. Tobin is praying for a miracle.

June 13, 2016

The military mantra of "suck it up" and an intense love for the Catholic faith drove Cheryl Tobin to reach new heights - the cupola of St. Peter's Basilica and a personal blessing from Pope Francis.

Despite having stage four cancer, undergoing chemotherapy and missing a section from both thigh muscles, Tobin traveled to Rome, climbed corkscrew staircases and did "the big wave" balanced on top of a plastic chair in order to catch the pope's attention.

"We were in the back of the crowd" at the pope's weekly general audience May 11 in St. Peter's Square, her husband, Jim Tobin, told Catholic News Service.

"I told her, 'You need to stand up on the chair and suck it up.' People were looking at me, like, 'What a thing to say.' Then I told her, 'Don't just wave. You've got to do the big wave.'

"That's when (the guards) pointed to her" to indicate she could come out from behind the barricades and meet the pope.

Cheryl said the pope held her hands and then blessed her head - bald from chemotherapy and misshapen from repeated skin grafts and operations to remove a tumor at the base of her skull.

She said she didn't want to wear her wig because she wanted the pope to see her like she was, but she did add some sparkle with a gold elastic hairband.

The pope then warmly embraced her as Cheryl cried on his shoulder. "I started crying when I saw him. I was overwhelmed with emotion," she said.

Cheryl's pilgrimage began in 2015 when her name was picked from a random drawing of listeners of Lino Rulli's Catholic Guy show on Sirius XM's Catholic Channel.

Only a few spots are available each year to join Rulli and other listeners on a pilgrimage to Rome and other cities in Italy.


But surgery and aggressive cancer treatments forced her to cancel that trip with an agreement to have a guaranteed spot on this year's trip, she said.

Radiation therapy again interfered with those plans, but Rulli organized a personalized itinerary that Cheryl could take on her own with her husband when she was between chemotherapy sessions this spring.

With her daughter's urging, Cheryl had started a GoFundMe page to pay for the costs of the trip - reaching the bulk of her goal in 15 months. She also curates the Cheryl Tobin's Fight Against Cancer page on Facebook as a multimedia journal chronicling her medical and faith journey.

"I'm not ashamed to show people what I'm going through," she said.

Cheryl said the Catholic Channel's satellite radio programs were instrumental to her joining the Catholic Church. She had "always believed in God," but her parents didn't take her to church when she was growing up.

"I was always looking for something but never found it," she said.

Living near Nashville in Clarksville, Tenn., Cheryl said she started reading about the Catholic Church and "liked the structure," the "set laws" in Church teaching, and the fact that the order of Mass is the same wherever you go so you always feel at home.

"Mass is heaven on earth," she said.

Rulli's show had a particular impact on her, she said.

"I never felt good enough, not worthy enough, not perfect enough" to be welcomed by God, she said, "and that held me back."

But Rulli and his guests "were normal" with their humorous banter about life and frank talk about their struggles. Their being upfront about being imperfect helped Cheryl feel there was a place for her, too, in the Catholic Church.

After she became a Catholic in 2010, it "seemed to be a load off her chest," Jim said. It also marked the start of her dream to go to Rome someday.

When she was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in 2013 at the age of 45, she tapped into her faith to pull her through and the Christian faith of her friends and co-workers who offered prayers and blessings.


With her poor prognosis - from three to nine months to live - all of her doctors said, "'Do what you enjoy.' So we decided to come here" and "pray for a miracle," Jim said.

Reliving her papal embrace from that morning, Cheryl said, "I'm relieved. I feel like no matter what happens, I'll be OK. It's like not having any fear."