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So You Think You Can Dance Ballroom Expert Mary Murphy Tangos with Thyroid Cancer

by Jessica Webb

Celebrity Cancer Survivor


(Photo by Patrick Ecclesine/FOX)

Most people are familiar with ballroom dance champion and choreographer Mary Murphy as a judge on the FOX reality show So You Think You Can Dance, where her larger-than-life personality, boisterous laugh, and high-pitched squeals have garnered her the nickname the “Queen of Scream.” However, in December 2010, surgery for a tumor on her thyroid threatened to quiet her trademark voice.

Mary’s tumor was discovered during a routine gynecologic exam, when her persistent cough led her doctor to check her lymph nodes. “When she put her hands on my neck, her eyes got really big,” Mary candidly reveals in an interview with Coping® magazine. “And, oh my goodness, my heart just dropped.”

The next day, Mary met with a specialist who recommended watchful waiting, as the tumor appeared to be slow growing. She would need to return for follow-up visits every six months.

When the six-month mark rolled around, “I showed up like every good student would,” Mary says. “And they seemed to think that there was no growth, and that it wasn’t cancer.” This news left her feeling incredibly positive – perhaps a little too positive, even.

“I got busy,” Mary admits. “I got super busy.” In addition to filming back-to-back seasons of SYTYCD, Mary also signed on for the Canadian version of the hit show. Before she could catch her breath, three years had passed since her last checkup. But Mary wasn’t too worried about the tumor in her neck. “I felt like I could just wish it away,” she confesses. After all, she had gotten a positive report during her last checkup.

“To have this incredibly good news and incredibly bad news all at the same time, you don’t know how to feel.”

However, Mary’s tumor had begun to grow, becoming noticeably visible. “All of a sudden, I started getting more tired; my voice became raspy,” Mary says. “It took energy to talk. Eventually, it became difficult to swallow.” These troubling symptoms convinced Mary to finally make that follow-up appointment she’d been putting off. Her doctor confirmed that the tumor had indeed grown, and it would need to be removed. Not only that, but because of the location and size of the tumor, there was a chance surgery would leave her unable to speak.

“That got my attention!” Mary proclaims, having recently signed a three-year deal with FOX at the time. “I felt like I can fight cancer, but I can’t fight not being able to talk again.”

After she awoke from surgery, the first thing Mary wanted to know was whether she still had her voice. “I pointed to my throat,” she says, “and my doctors said, ‘Yes, you’re going to be able to talk.’” Mary was relieved.

Next, she made the sign of a C with her hand and was given the news that the tumor was cancerous. “To have this incredibly good news and incredibly bad news all at the same time,” Mary concedes, “you don’t know how to feel.”

Though the cancer was successfully removed during surgery, Mary underwent radioactive iodine treatment to destroy any remaining thyroid cells in her body. This required seven days of isolation – not an easy task for someone as outgoing as Mary.

“I’m a people person,” Mary says, letting loose her signature laugh. “I certainly was chatting up a storm on the phone. I was talking way too soon, I was so happy to be talking.”

Though Mary took a year off from SYTYCD to deal with her health, she came back cancer free and screaming (almost) as loud as ever in Season 8. “It just felt like a huge celebration,” Mary says of her return. “Everything was right with the world again, and I had come to the other side.”

As someone who’s always up for a good laugh, Mary recommends that anyone facing cancer should watch as many funny movies as you can to stay in good spirits. It’s what helped her get through that dreadful week of isolation. “There is no way that a hysterically funny movie is not going to make you laugh,” she says. “Even when you’re facing some of the saddest times of your life.”

Mary’s next piece of advice: “When somebody says you need a checkup every six months, do it.”

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Mary returned to the judges’ table for the ninth season of FOX’s So You Think You Can Dance, which wrapped up in September.

Keep up with Mary on twitter at twitter.com/HOTtamaleTRAIN.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2012.