Stage IV lung cancer survivor, disparities cancer researcher, family physician appointed as Karmanos' new associate center director

Dr. Morhaf Al Achkar joins Team Karmanos as the associate center director for Education

The Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute welcomes Morhaf Al Achkar, M.D., Ph.D., MSCR, FAAFP, as the associate center director for Education. Dr. Al Achkar brings over 10 years of experience in education and teaching, research, and clinical family. He also brings valuable personal experience to his new role as a seven-year stage IV lung cancer survivor.

“It has been a pleasure and an exciting transition moving from Seattle to Detroit to join the team here at Karmanos,” said Dr. Al Achkar. “I have begun building relationships and connecting with colleagues and community members. My responsibilities at Karmanos center around advancing education and training initiatives for the cancer center community. Additionally, I am deeply passionate about enhancing the cancer care experience for our patients and addressing health disparities.”

Dr. Al Achkar refuses to be defined or stopped by his incurable condition. He was diagnosed in 2016 following episodes of shortness of breath. His tests revealed the anaplastic lymphoma kinase (ALK) rearrangement, or ALK fusion, a genetic alteration linked to lung cancer. Advances in treatment have enabled him to live with lung cancer as a chronic condition.

“Cancer is no longer a death sentence; people need to be aware of that,” Dr. Al Achkar asserts. “As a lung cancer survivor and family doctor, I emphasize the importance of early detection, prevention, and screening. Smoking is a major cause of lung cancer, but non-smokers are also susceptible. I focus on raising awareness of signs and symptoms for a timely diagnosis, and promote low-dose CT screening as an effective early detection tool for smokers and former smokers.”

Dr. Al Achkar’s cancer journey inspired him to author four books; the first features interviews with 39 lung cancer survivors. His diagnosis also significantly shaped his research, driving him to investigate cancer patients' experiences and needs. He delved into patient-provider communication, aiming to improve access to second opinions and specialist oncologists, and disparities in lung cancer diagnoses. His latest study delves into the systemic issues and access challenges that contribute to the later-mentioned issue. Dr. Al Achkar is dedicated to examining how discrimination and racism affect experiences, collaborating with BIPOC communities, especially African American, Arabic-speaking Middle Eastern and North African communities.

As the associate center director for Education at Karmanos, Dr. Al Achkar oversees the Office of Cancer Research Training and Education Coordination (CRTEC), is responsible for establishing a vision for the cancer center’s education efforts, and leads professional development across the training continuum from high school students to tenured faculty and health care professionals, throughout the Karmanos catchment area (46 Michigan counties) and beyond. He oversees the integration of education and training into the scientific research programs, assesses a broad range of active training programs, catalogs cancer education activities through the Wayne State University (WSU) School of Medicine, and advocates for and initiates new research training and development opportunities to enrich the educational environment for the cancer center community.

“The addition of Dr. Al Achkar furthers our research and expands research training and education,” said Boris Pasche, M.D., Ph.D., FACP, president and CEO of Karmanos. “His broad experience in research, teaching, and practice provides a wonderful base for Dr. Al Achkar to build and develop our scientific research initiatives.” 

Dr. Al Achkar joins Karmanos following a six-year tenure at the University of Washington in Seattle. During his time there, he served as an associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine, an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Health Services School of Public Health, and was a core faculty member at the AIMS Center within the Department of Psychiatry. Additionally, Dr. Al Achkar has spent five years as an attending family medicine physician and assistant professor at Indiana University.

In 2018, Dr. Al Achkar received the Pearls Award from the North America Practice Care Research Network for a research study that will impact clinical practice. He has also received the Family Medicine Residency Program’s Faculty of the Year Award at Indiana University and multiple recognitions from the Society of Teachers of Family Medicine.

A Syrian immigrant, Dr. Al Achkar completed his medical degree at Aleppo University in Syria. He completed his residency training at Florida Hospital in Orlando and Winter Park, Florida, where he also served as a chief resident. Dr. Al Achkar holds a Master of Science in Clinical Research from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and a Doctorate of Philosophy in Inquiry Methodology and Education from Indiana University in Bloomington. He’s also board-certified with the American Board of Family Medicine and is involved with the North America Practice Care Research Network, the Society of Teachers of Family Medicine, and the American Academy of Family Physicians.

Dr. Al Achkar began his role at Karmanos in September. He also joins WSU as a faculty member at the School of Medicine.