Diagnosed with lung cancer, Morhaf Al Achkar is living with purpose

In 2016, Dr. Morhaf Al Achkar was in a unique position. As a primary care physician (PCP) at University of Washington Medicine, he knew he needed to act quickly when he started experiencing ongoing and worsening shortness of breath. An X-ray showed that his lungs were full of fluid, and a pathology report confirmed what he had already started to suspect: lung cancer. Within a month of his diagnosis, he was taking a targeted oral treatment, an option he was eligible for due to the ALK (Anaplastic Lymphoma Kinase) gene found during his initial testing.  

Morhaf Al Achkar

Shortly after his diagnosis, Al Achkar flew to Florida to visit friends. “The idea was that this was my last trip,” he says. “You go to say ‘goodbye’ to people, but it became harder to live with that mindset.” 

Fortunately for Al Achkar, he has responded well to his treatment plan, which is guided by his oncologist, Dr. Christina Baik. Having surpassed his expected survivorship, the five years since his diagnosis have shaped the way Al Achkar approaches his life and his work. 

Al Achkar, a family physician and UW faculty in the Department of Family Medicine, is committed to helping others who are dealing with a life-changing diagnosis, especially those who have less access to care. He credits his background as a medical provider and his own personal circumstances with enabling him to be a strong advocate for his own treatment. His goal is to make sure everyone can access that same level of care. “I see others with less privilege who are struggling to survive—or even struggling to have the opportunity to survive—and that’s intolerable,” he says. “Morally it is wrong. It is frustrating that surviving lung cancer is a privilege.”  

Part of Al Achkar’s work led to Project RADICAL (Racial Disparity in Cancer of the Lung). He, along with other patients, caregivers, health care providers, advocates and researchers, started this group focused on finding a path toward health care equity. He has identified multiple barriers to equitable care, including seeing a primary care doctor, taking time off work for appointments and having comprehensive insurance that covers screenings and specialist visits. Project RADICAL works to understand and overcome these and other racial disparities in health and cancer care through patient experience research, broad-based awareness and community-building through webinars, and hopefully in-person events in the future.  

From both a personal and professional perspective, Al Achkar emphasizes the value of preventive care and talking with your primary care provider about any symptoms you're experiencing. “You don’t have to be a smoker to get lung cancer,” he says. “It’s not just the elderly; I was 33. It’s not just men; women can get it, and any race can get it. Any person with a lung can get lung cancer. When you have vague and ongoing symptoms, you need to get ahold of your provider.”