Peering intently at the tiny white smudge in their baby's brain scan, Sue and Ben Erickson could see that the image did not reveal the miracle they had prayed for.
"It looks good. It looks good. I'm happy," Dr. Rishi Lulla, a pediatric oncologist, said as he reviewed the images at Lurie Children's Hospital in Chicago. "It's substantially, substantially better."
The results from this month's MRI marked a pivotal time for Matthew Erickson, who, at 8 months old, has charmed every nurse with his single-toothed grin. He was born Dec. 11 with an especially aggressive form of brain cancer, a high-grade glioma that developed while he was still in his mother's womb, even though it's most often diagnosed in adults.
The cancer, whose causes are unknown, had engulfed most of the right hemisphere of Matthew's brain. Only about five children nationally are born each year with such a rare, usually fatal, condition, his doctors said when the Tribune first chronicled the family's story in February.
At the time, doctors gave the Huntley couple a difficult choice: bring Matthew home with a hospice team, love him and keep him comfortable until the inevitable. Or they could treat the cancer aggressively with chemotherapy, a toxic cocktail with no certain outcome.
While used successfully with some other babies, chemotherapy could cause additional long-term damage or even hasten Matthew's demise, the doctors warned.
Matthew seemed determined to make the decision for the couple. He was a born fighter, his parents said, and he rarely cried, making the treacherous journey a bit less emotionally taxing on his parents.
Even when he throws up, he smiles, his mom said.
"You look at him, you look at his eyes, he has life," Sue Erickson said.
The couple arrived at the hospital at 6 a.m. Aug. 16, the day of Matthew's MRI, admitting they did not sleep the night before. For six months the family had set their sights on this day, to find out how well their baby responded to the aggressive treatment.
"Too nervous. Too excited," said Ben Erickson, who, like his wife and mother-in-law, wore a T-shirt that read "Grey Matters" with the family name on the back.
Since their decision to fight the cancer, the couple also has fought to maintain normalcy.
Matthew has spent at least two to three weeks each month in the hospital, dealing not only with the chemotherapy's side effects but complications from diabetes insipidus, a kidney condition marked by excessive urination that can lead to dehydration. He also suffers brain seizures, which probably are caused by the tumor and surgeries, Lulla said.
Meanwhile, time marched on. The couple's son Nolan, 5, just started kindergarten. Their daughter, Sophia, recently celebrated her second birthday with a "princess party."
Matthew's saga splashes over into daily routines. Sophia one day picked up a calculator, held it to her ear like a cellphone and said, "Dr. Lulla? Dr. Lulla?"
Sue's parents, Louise ("Nunny" to her grandchildren) and Bob Turner, help juggle child care and doctor appointments.
School also started last week for Ben, a teacher at South Elgin High School.
Hundreds of students surprised him last spring with a donation for Matthew, whose every visit to the hospital generates a lengthy bill. The most recent invoice was 69 pages long.