Thinking on photons

Here am I lying on my back on a hard, narrow “bed”, part of the quiet linear accelerator (linac) that is bombarding a neatly — if invisibly — delineated section of my chest with photons.

This happens five days a week, late morning.

Often Joél, one of the technicians, starts up a playlist for me as I lie motionless, dressed, with my arms crossed above my head.

And often the playlist breaks down.  Because, explains another technician, Sinbar, “too much radiation.”

Oh.  So that’s why they close the door between the linac and their operator nest out off a hallway.  Those little photons go whizzing all over the place in that room during my ten minute radiation treatments.  And everybody else’s.  The radiation generated between photons and the machine’s electromagnetism affect some things in the room.

I, who used to long to understand how things done to me by doctors when I had polio six decades ago were supposed to work, was normally thwarted by the uncommunicative practices of those times.  Thus now I am having a grand time learning a little bit about how this common type of cancer treatment works.  Back then when I had about a thousand X-rays I formed the notion that radiation sickness couldn’t be far off.  Nobody explained that everything emits some radiation,  and some of that can be channeled in  useful ways.  Without the original source of this radiation — suns — there would be no life.

Laura, the nurse who manages the radiation areas, showed me how a patient is set up, how the doctor’s plan for each of us goes into the system, to be measured by templates that are brought together on a computer screen by a technician moving the “bed” remotely, to get the field on the person lined up with the template in the system.  Which is what the gantry in the accelerator uses to deliver four blasts of those photons.  At two different amplitudes.

There is a far rarer, and more expensive, type of linac that delivers protons rather than photons.  It is better for certain cancers with defined walls, often in children and often in the head and neck. Unlike photons, protons stay put inside the tumor.

I spend some time musing over how bazillions of neutrinos  lacking any electrical charge, whizz about the universe every nano second, passing effortlessly through matter as do some photons and protons, including ourselves.  In cancer therapy protons tend to stay in place in tumors, whereas photons keep going.  So many particle bits whizzing invisibly around the empty spaces which make up most of the universe, how amazing is it that we are able to channel specific types of them this way? … And that having passed through my body they go on to disrupt the playlists.

Which all makes me think, lying there, of the photons that seem to be wearing grey blankets when they light up my section of central Fresno every day this week, courtesy of the sun above.  Grey blankets courtesy of the vast tapestry of wildfires some 230 miles north, in California’s wine country, and another to the east in the Sequoia National Forest area.  My nose is sore and feels inflamed, but one cannot blame that on the daily radiation.  Lots of noses are in the same condition.

At this phase — four of my six weeks with the linac now behind me — my physical energy runs low by early afternoon, one reason for fewer blogs written than I have going on in my head these days.  My grasshopper mind flits more madly than usual from one gripping situation to another.  There are lots of little twinges happening all over my left arm, chest, even neck — which I generously attribute to the doings of that linear accelerator.

I draw some interest from the knowledge that this piece of life-saving (if ouch inducing) equipment is a little cousin to the giant particle accelerators physicists use underground to smash infinitesimal particles together in a seventeen mile donut of a tunnel at CERN in Europe.  I would love to understand even a tiny bit about programs that engineer the head on particle collisions that have resulted in discoveries of such important sounding fragments of …. photons or something or other …. as The God Particle.

I’ll soon spend time exploring CERN’s website.

But the grasshopper mind dances on into the great wintriness of its aging.  Despite the radiation weariness I work on that mind of mine, endeavor to trim it with some modicum of discipline.  Such as learning a second language.

¿Y ay de mi, what is going on with my Spanish studies?  So many of my neighbors here speak little English that it has become very important to me to learn enough to converse with them, hear their stories, share in the laughter.  I have a well recommended program to learn with…  But do I find the regular time or discipline?  … Don’t go holding your breath out there.

I am an empath, a fact that is often distracting my efforts at focus.  My heart is with  many people in their travails so far beyond my little bout with breast cancer that I feel petty putting us together in one sentence.  The ones fleeing their homes in tornados of flames, the horses left behind, the old people perishing because they could not move fast enough to escape the flames.  People diving into freezing cold swimming pools to escape the flaming whirlwinds as their homes turn to soft ash alongside them.  How I pray for them!

How curious that the grapevines survive, those major economic engines of California’s annual budget.  The vast acreages planted to grapes in fact serve as firebreaks.  The ancient oaks surrounding them, thousands of which were torn out decades ago as Wine Country was being created, lie in ash today, but the grape islands are still harvestable.


Every day brings news of some fresh horror going on in the world, and it seems that  October 12 this week brought way more than should have been allowed.  The fires being only a part of it all, maybe not even such a big one.

Here’s a Mary Chapin Carpenter song that sums these thoughts up:

The Age of Miracles

My daughter now has a job that needs her presence by 7 a.m., many times earlier, as many as six days a week.  So my son-in-law, Paco, has stepped in most mornings to take Elf and Opus for their daily smash and grab along the sidewalks surrounding the apartment complex.  Smash and grab is an appropriate term.  The two of them have become incorrigible about trying to smash through the grip of their leashes, grabbing at the leavings, fair and foul, of a city.  They, Elf especially, poise themselves to grab any bit of disgusting matter they can scarf up before Paco or Martin, a teenager who also does morning walks, or Jericha can restrain them.

Both dogs have paid an awful price for their horrid snacks, in terms of gastroenteritis and hospitalizations.  My bank account is now gasping for air.

Elf with Jericha during one of her bouts of GI troubles a few months ago.

Back to Paco.  He is a journalist, a comprehensive thinker, and a staunch Baha’i who spent two and a half years of service in Haifa, Israel, at the Baha’i World Centre.  We have wonderful conversations before, during and after these morning dog walks. He, as much as anyone human, helps to bring my leaping insect mind into focus on a regular basis.

Baha’is, who accept all the world’s major religions, take the view that the problems, man made and otherwise, the world is experiencing will continue until all of have recognized that humanity is one single family in which there are, according to science, not multiple races.  All are the same species, the same race.

“Ye dwell in one world, and have been created through the operation of one Will.  Blessed is he who mingleth with all men in a spirit of utmost kindliness and love.”

~Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh

Yet every day brings news of yet another horrible thing going on that seems intended to show off how much one country, one faction, one segment of the human race or another, thinks it is extra special in some way, and has the right to either dictate to the others or scare them half to death.  Too often settling on bullying when neither approach yields the desired results.  Too often ranting with little grasp of the science involved in what they are threatening us all with, too many of us uncritical believers of all these threats and rattling sabers, these attacks on the very poorest amongst us, our planet, our very ability to survive.

Then there are the shootings, the ethnic cleansing, the rising dictatorships, the insane discussions of increasing nuclear arsenals.  The tearing apart of environmental protections — on and on.

How have we come to accept these terrible possibilities without much pushback?  Are we  frogs in a slowly heating pot of water?

An empath quivers with feeling for those affected not only by natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes and wildfires, but also for those alpha human nose-thumbings at others.  For the animals losing their lives unmentioned in the various catastrophes.

Here we are together under the one sun that has given life not only to all humans, but to the multiple natural systems that make us possible, support our continuation.  We are all, so to speak, bombarded by the same photons every moment of our lives.  Why are we not appreciating one another adequately for a peaceful condition?  We need to figure this out, soon.

It’s wearing me out, all this empathizing.  I have been trying hard to maintain a positive viewpoint during these months, aiming at cancer survival, longing for wider understanding.

And so I turn to other people, hearing their stories, sharing laughs with fellow cancer patients as we await our solitary ten minutes on that narrow table, alone with the intimate knowledge of that thing that has invaded our bodies, how firmly we intend that the disease be put down for good, that we will go on to share more laughs and affirmations.

Above all, it is my faith that lights up life for me at this rather complicated time.  On October 21 Baha’is around the world will be hosting observances of the 200th birthday of Baha’u’llah, founder of their faith.  This is a big story, details of which are available at

The heart of Baha’u’llah’s message is this:

“We desire but the good of the world and the happiness of the nations; yet they deem Us a stirrer up of strife and sedition worthy of bondage and banishment…. That all nations should become one in faith and all men as brothers; that the bonds of affection and unity between the sons of men should be strengthened; that diversity of religion should cease, and differences of race be annulled — what harm is there in this?… Yet so it shall be; these fruitless strifes, these ruinous wars shall pass away, and the `Most Great Peace’ shall come…. Yet do We see your kings and rulers lavishing their treasures more freely on means for the destruction of the human race than on that which would conduce to the happiness of mankind…. These strifes and this bloodshed and discord must cease, and all men be as one kindred and one family…. Let not a man glory in this, that he loves his country; let him rather glory in this, that he loves his kind….”


“Consider the flowers of the …. garden. Although they are of different kinds, various colors and diverse forms and appearances, yet as they drink from one water, are swayed by one breeze and grow by the warmth and light of one sun, this variation and this difference cause each to enhance the beauty and splendor of the others.”

~’Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i World Faith

2 thoughts on “Thinking on photons

  1. Beautiful post, Emily, and all power to you for healing. BBC is my companion every weekday from five ‘til 6 am and sometimes I think my heart will explode with grief. And then I decide the universe wants me to go on with my day and be the best human I can. Thank you for another reminder of this.

    Liked by 1 person

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