It’s hard to imagine the FOX hit series So You Think You Can Dance (SYTYCD) without its larger-than-life judge, Mary Murphy. Yet in 2010, the veteran dancer stepped away from the show for a surprising reason: she was diagnosed with a thyroid tumor which she later learned was cancerous. The star found herself fighting for her life during the show’s seventh season, ultimately taking decisive action to save the very thing she was best known for: her buoyant laugh and expressive voice. Read on to learn how she discovered her first cancer symptom, and for the health advice she’s now sharing with others.
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Murphy noticed her health was suffering in 2007. That year, she was especially busy shooting a double season of So You Think You Can Dance and taking care of her elderly father in her Ohio hometown, she told Parade in 2014. Within a short period of time, Murphy developed a cough, fatigue, strep throat, and bronchitis, leading her doctor to check for swollen lymph nodes. “When she put her hands on my neck, her eyes got really big,” Murphy recalled while speaking with Coping with Cancer Magazine in 2012. “And, oh my goodness, my heart just dropped.”
Having discovered a mass, the doctor recommended Murphy see a specialist immediately. The very next day, she underwent a needle biopsy. Unable to identify the mass as cancerous and saying it appeared to be slow-growing, her medical team recommended follow-up visits every six months.
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Murphy showed up for her six-month follow-up appointment and received good news: There was no growth in the tumor, and her doctor believed it was benign. After that, the urgency faded, and her health once again took a back seat to her career. “I got really busy again and missed two-and-a-half years of check-ups,” she told Parade. “The tumor grew and was up against my voice box. But I still didn’t know I had cancer.”
Three years later, however, her symptoms intensified. “All of a sudden, I started getting more tired; my voice became raspy,” Murphy told Coping. “It took energy to talk. Eventually, it became difficult to swallow.” At her next check-up, she learned the tumor had grown considerably, and a risky surgery was necessary to remove it. Her doctor informed her that the procedure could leave her unable to speak. “That got my attention!” said the star, who is affectionately dubbed the “Queen of Scream” for her boisterousness on the show. “I felt like I can fight cancer, but I can’t fight not being able to talk again.”
When she awoke from surgery, Murphy recalls that she received “incredibly good news and incredibly bad news.” The surgery had been successful, in that it had removed the tumor and she would, thankfully, be able to speak again. However, she was also told the tumor was cancerous, and she needed radioactive iodine treatment to fight any remaining cancer cells.
The ballroom dancer took time away from the show to focus on her health, and after her treatment, returned for an eighth season with a new sense of vitality. “It just felt like a huge celebration,” Murphy shared with Coping. “Everything was right with the world again, and I had come to the other side.”
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Today, it’s been over a decade since Murphy’s surgery, and she’s sharing the lessons she learned from her experience with cancer. Most importantly, she says, she wants others to know how crucial it is to follow up on any possible health threats, no matter how tempting it may be to put them off. “I get blood work done on a regular basis every three to four months now,” the TV judge told Parade. “I especially check my vitamin D levels. It’s important to have a heads-up before something happens, and before I had cancer, I wouldn’t go unless I was dying,” she said. “Now I go whether I feel good or not.”
If your doctor has recommended follow-up appointment, Murphy urges you to go. “When somebody says you need a checkup every six months, do it,” she told Coping.
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