Credit: Kelsey McNeal/Fox

Prep those ear plugs: Mary Murphy is back as a permanent judge for Season 8 of So You Think You Can Dance (premiering tonight on Fox at 8 p.m. ET), reuniting with exec producer and judge Nigel Lythgoe. The venerable dance-scapade will return to the old format of 20 finalists hoofing it together, and bring back the “All Star” partners once the contestants are cut down to a Top 10. “It’s kind of the best of both worlds,” Murphy tells EW. “Nigel’s a smart man.”

Just six months ago, however, there was a very good chance that no one would ever hear Murphy’s signature scream and constant, buoyant laughter again. The 53-year-old former ballroom dancing champion had a tumor removed from her throat in December during an operation that threatened to silence her vocal chords permanently. It’s a topic that remains at the forefront of Murphy’s mind. All it took was asking her about her absence from last season, and she happily talked through her entire, harrowing story. She also details what to expect from the auditions this season, and gives us an update on whether Season 7 standout Alex Wong is returning this year after an injury to his Achilles tendon forced him to withdraw from the competition. Check out the full Q&A below.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So was it hard to be away last season?

MARY MURPHY: Well, yeah I’m not going to lie to you. It was really difficult to be away. I didn’t realize how difficult it would be for me, especially watching the show. I could only watch it a couple times, and I had such major disagreements with the judges. [Laughs] I was sitting at home yelling at the TV. I can remember one in particular was a tap dancer named Melinda and everybody was going off on her about how bad her salsa was. And I was sitting there [saying], “That’s the best salsa that’s ever been on the show!” [Laughs] I was just like, this is absurd. I went to the finale, [and] I just had to let her know. I felt so adamantly about that that I went up to her and sat down with her and said I really have to say I wish I was there at that moment for her, and felt very bad that I was not. I really did believe that things like that were going on, I was like “I can’t do this, I can’t watch this. This is too hard, it’s like an out of body experience.” I didn’t realize it would be as hard for me.

It was never quite clear why you weren’t a part of the season and Mia Michaels replaced you. What happened?

You have to understand that [before season 7], we did two seasons [in one year]. I was involved in the Australian and Canadian version [of So You Think You Can Dance]. When they laid the second season on us, which was like in June [2009], we had just finished doing the auditioning. I went right back out on the road and was doing the auditions again. It was the busiest year of my life, because I had already booked out my fall. I had so many commitments and I really like to live up to my word. I literally was red-eyeing it back and forth, criss-crossing this country.

Fox did make me an offer [for judging on season 7]. Things fell down in negotiation on my side, and I started having some major tragedies in my personal life and was absolutely dead exhausted. We came to the conclusion that I would choreograph, and I came back for Las Vegas week, and then my house started spiraling out of control. I was taught to be keen and very vigilant. I knew I had a tumor in my throat, but I was so confident and in denial that it would never turn to cancer. I went along my merry way.

Then in the summertime, I started becoming extremely exhausted. Then I slowly became losing my voice, and then I started having a hard time swallowing. My friends were insistent that I see a doctor. In September, there are so many judges on the finale, you don’t really get to say anything, which was fine with me. [Laughs] I was just getting through it, which nobody knew at that time. I didn’t discuss it with anybody. Honestly, I didn’t really think I had a problem. [Laughs]

In September, we negotiated and I said yes, I would come back for a three-year deal. Two weeks later, I was told I may never talk again, and that I [likely] had thyroid cancer. It was a little bit of a roller coaster. I had some personal deaths that year — two were not expected and one was. Everything happens for a reason, and looking back, as much as I hated not being on the show, it was definitely a time in my life where I needed to be off.

What happened after the diagnosis?

Then came the surgery on December 15. They couldn’t tell me it was cancer at that point in September; they just said the tumor was getting larger and that it would have to come out. I still didn’t believe it. My main concern was that they told me a large tumor pushing up against the vocal cord box [meant] I could lose my voice. I thought, Well, if I got cancer, I could fight that, but if you lose your voice, there’s nothing that you can do about it. [Laughs] [People know me by] my voice and my laugh. I’m laughing every single day. It hit me overwhelmingly two days before the surgery that that was a possibility. That’s all I could focus on. [It was] the first thing I wanted to know when I woke up in recovery — I was pointing to my throat. The next thing I did was make a C with my hand, and they said, “Yes, I’m sorry, Mary, you have cancer.” I was just overwhelmingly jubilant, like, “Oh yeah! [Laughs] I’ve got my voice!” And then the next few seconds I was like, “Oh no. I’ve got cancer. Oh my gosh!” [Laughs] I did know that most times this is a slow moving cancer, but the problem was that it probably had turned to cancer quite a long time ago. When I was first diagnosed with the tumor, they said keep a close eye every six months. Then came the double season [of SYTYCD] and I just got so busy. By the time I called the doctor, I said, “Yeah I think I’m fine.” And they said, “Mary, it’s been two-and-a-half years. What are you doing?” And that kinda hit me. I wasn’t vigilant about taking care of my health.

How is your health right now?

Right now, I’m doing really good. In February, after the radioactive isotope treatment, I am cancer free. I was back on the roller coaster again, going back uphill again and doing the [SYTYCD] auditions.

Are there things you’re rediscovering about the show that you really missed?

Oh my gosh, well, when I came back to the set, it was so heartwarming and overwhelming, the support for me. It meant the world to me. The entire crew and every single person from security to every cameraman made their way to me at some point to say that we’re so happy that you’re back. Me and Nigel, we’re like an old married couple by now. [Laughs] Everything just went straight back to normality. What I missed the most was being able to witness those kids having a magical moment right in front of me, and to be on their journey from beginning to end. There was one show that I missed this season because I already had a contract with Burn the Floor.

What sticks out to you this season so far through auditions? Notice any trends?

It was a very unusual audition season. The three [cities] that typically have [great dancers], didn’t. In New York, it wasn’t as good as other seasons had been. When we would go to another city that we didn’t expect to have all these amazing dancers, or like Atlanta, [it was great]. And L.A. this year! L.A.’s always been good, but it was just unbelievable, it was like we were giving tickets at a carnival left and right, throwing them out to Las Vegas!

This year in Las Vegas… Maybe it was because I had cancer that I feel slightly different. I’ve always appreciated what these dancers have done, but I had this new heightened level of connection. The entire judging panel has a serious connection with this top 20. I’ve never seen it any other year. The transformation with those kids in that four days in Las Vegas was mind-blowing. When you see something like that in front of you — the artistry and the commitment [from] people that have not come from a trained background — I mean it’s just a blessing to be able to sit there and watch. I think we all felt that way. We were all bawling by the end of the four days, those kids and the judges too. Even Nigel had a tear in his eye. [Laughs]

Finally, one of the great tragedies of last season was Alex Wong’s injury. Will Alex return this year?

He was not able to return. He is doing extremely well and I don’t think it’s all over. He is back in training. I don’t believe he was [medically] cleared. We didn’t see him in Las Vegas. I have seen him during this year and he is in training and doing very well. But wherever I go all over the United States, he is in everybody’s hearts for sure. I think people will always be interested in what is going on with Alex Wong and we’re definitely going to follow up on him.

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So You Think You Can Dance

Nigel Lythgoe, Mary Murphy, and the viewers at home crown America’s Favorite Dancer.

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