Matthew Erickson

Matthew Erickson, born with a rare brain tumor, lies on an exam table at Dr. Tord Alden's office in Westchester. The baby's mother asked whether Alden could tell if there was “good brain” beneath fluid and tumor. Alden said he doesn’t know. (Stacey Wescott, Chicago Tribune)

Sue and Ben Erickson thought they were prepared after learning that their baby could be born with physical or mental disabilities. An ultrasound during the 36th week of pregnancy revealed an excess of cerebral fluid on the unborn infant's brain, but the young Huntley couple quickly accepted that God must have a special plan.

They were overjoyed when Matthew Donald Erickson emerged from the womb on Dec. 11 in seemingly great form at just over 6 pounds.

He wriggled his arms and legs, grimaced and scored high on the newborn checklist to assess health.

But what came next was unfathomable.

Surgeons at Children's Memorial Hospital, while removing fluid from the 4-day-old baby's brain, discovered a large mass. A biopsy confirmed devastating news.

Matthew has cancer, they said. The Ericksons were stricken with fear. How, they wondered, can a baby be born with cancer?

There was more.

The baby suffers from an especially aggressive form of brain tumor, a high-grade glioma, most often diagnosed in adults, the doctors said. The cancer, whose causes are unknown, had already engulfed most of the right hemisphere of Matthew's brain. Only about five children nationally are born with such a rare, usually fatal, condition each year, his doctors said.

"Why him?" said Sue Erickson, 33. Her eyes welled as she recalled her initial reaction. "It's just not fair."

The doctors said they would understand if the couple took their baby home with hospice care, loved him and waited for the inevitable.

But the team of specialists offered another option: chemotherapy, a toxic potion used to target and kill cancer cells that has shown mixed success with infants. The drug, to be delivered intravenously, offers no guarantees. It could, in fact, cause additional long-term damage, or even hasten Matthew's demise.

Ben, 34, blurted out the first question that came to his mind: "Is Matthew dying? Was he born dying?"

The oncologist replied no, that Matthew's organs were functioning normally and, aside from the malignant tumor, he was healthy.

"That was a pivotal answer to me," Ben said. "If he's not dying, let's let him live. Let's give him a shot."

Their baby had proved to be a fighter, after all, thriving after brain surgery. The couple rallied, found support from their families and friends and chose to view the daunting journey ahead as a blessing.

"We just looked at each other and said, 'If there's any chance at all, we have to give it to him,'" Sue said.

At 6 weeks old, Matthew weighed 8 pounds 15 ounces — having never turned down a decent bottle of rice formula, his mother noted. He sported the equivalent of a baby comb-over, with wispy dark hair and eyes that lean toward blue, like his dad. The only obvious sign of his precarious health was a jagged scar on his head that his parents massage daily.

He yawns and makes small, precious noises familiar to parents, but never wails or cries like a typical infant. Long before his birth, his parents followed a songwriter, Matt Hammitt, whose own child was born with heart defects. Little did they know that his song about that child, "All of Me," would become the thing that Sue said "gets me through."

"Afraid to love/ Something that could break/ Could I move on/ If you were torn away?