This Woman’s “Asthma Symptoms” Turned Out to Be Stage 4 Lung Cancer

Updated: Jun. 30, 2022

For four years, doctors told Lori Morris she had asthma; all the while, lung cancer slowly spread throughout her body.

Almost 50 and ready for anything

At 49 years old, Lori Morris completed a hike that would have challenged a person half her age: She climbed the highest peak in California, 14,505-foot tall Mount Whitney. Understandably, she was feeling great. But then, two weeks later, she began wheezing and feeling like she couldn’t catch her breath. Was it asthma? A lung infection? Neither Morris or her doctors could have predicted this healthy, strong woman was actually battling lung cancer.

“This was in September of 2013. I thought maybe I had delayed altitude sickness. Suddenly, I couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs without breathing heavy. I knew something was wrong,” Morris recalls. She had always been active doing something—spin classes, yoga, and hiking were a regular part of her schedule. Her primary care doctor told her it was a lung infection, and prescribed antibiotics and an inhaler—but none of it helped. She went back to her doctor a few months later, still unwell, and got a diagnosis of asthma. This was a bit closer to the truth—asthma is one of the 6 lung cancer symptoms you shouldn’t ignore.

Still, Morris knew something else was wrong. “I went to UCLA, where the doctors did an x-ray and a full physical.” But they got no closer to her real trouble, says Morris. “They said I was completely fine, and asked how my asthma was doing.” Morris continued using her inhalers even though they weren’t helping.

Could it be a stroke?

She continued to struggle until January 2018, when suddenly her symptoms began to resemble a stroke while she was traveling in Florida. “The entire left side of my body shut down. They rushed me to a nearby hospital, and while looking for the signs of a stroke with scans they found a mass in my brain. They said they weren’t sure if it was a virus or a secondary mass—I knew that wasn’t good.”

Morris was transferred to a teaching hospital that had an available neurosurgeon, and after more scans, doctors located a six-centimeter tumor in her lung; it was the origin of the tumor in her brain. The scans also revealed tumors in her spine, pancreas, kidney, liver, and lymph nodes. “I had stage 4 primary lung cancer with metastasis to the brain. The neurosurgeon said I should have received a CT scan the second time I complained of symptoms because lung tumors hide in x-rays, they’re invisible.” (Here are 11 things doctors wish everyone knew about lung cancer.)

A terrifying diagnosis

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in both men and women, and about 228,150 new cases will be diagnosed this year. Symptoms of lung cancer include persistent cough, chest pain, hoarseness, loss of appetite and weight, shortness of breath, coughing up blood, weakness, and bronchitis or recurrent lung infections. (Here are some other cancer symptoms you should never ignore.)

Though her doctors wanted to remove the brain tumor surgically and start her on chemotherapy, Morris took charge of her treatment almost instantly after receiving the news. She flew home to Los Angeles and sought care at Cedars Sinai Medical Center. “I knew with stage 4 cancer that was also in the brain, I didn’t have much time. I knew I had to get to Dr. Nagourney.” Randomly, Morris had met Robert Nagourney, MD, of the Nagourney Cancer Institute, at a fundraiser in 2014, during the time she was having symptoms but still believed she had asthma. His understanding of the intricacies of lung cancer treatment so impressed her, that her first instinct was to get Dr. Nagourney’s opinion on her tumor and treatment.

Finding the right treatment

Morris allowed the surgeons at Cedars-Sinai to remove the tumor on one condition—that they send part of it to Dr. Nagourney for functional profiling testing in his lab. “The difference with Dr. Nagourney is that he tests your tissue with various treatments to see if they’re effective before you get them. He can tell you whether your cancer will respond to a treatment or not. Mine was not responsive to chemo, so what they wanted to do at the hospital would have killed me. I have an ALK mutation that will only respond to targeted therapy.”

Armed with specific knowledge of Morris’ cancer, Dr. Nagourney prescribed a targeted therapy combination of Alectinib and Metformin—a medication typically used for diabetics; some research suggests it can target certain types of cancer. “I’ve been on the treatment almost a year and my tumors have shrunk 87 percent. I’m going to beat this.” Morris says she wants others to know there is hope—and to choose their doctors wisely. “Don’t pay attention to the statistics: They’re wrong if you find the right doctor. You’re an individual, not a number. Don’t make fear-based decisions, and don’t let anyone steal your joy—cancer doesn’t have to be a death sentence.” Be proactive: Here are smart habits that can help prevent lung cancer.