SALT LAKE CITY — Toni Lock was speaking near the end of teaching her qi gong class Monday when she broke into tears.

The instructor, or sifu, as her position is referred to in the discipline, soon afterward gathered her students into a large group hug. Surrounded by the tranquil scenery of the nearly empty Red Butte Garden amphitheater, she and a dozen or so other women lingered for several quiet moments as they clasped their arms over each other's shoulders.

Despite the practice's association with achieving emotional well-being and connectedness, a session of qi gong typically doesn't conclude with embraces and tears.

But on this day, they were the natural outpouring of catharsis between teacher and pupils, following last week's completion of several months of chemotherapy treatment endured by Lock, the very person who has been using qi gong to help others through their own fight with cancer.

"Do I give thanks that I have cancer? In a way, I do, because it's given me strength, it's taught me empathy," said Lock, who has taught her classes to patients and caregivers as part of the Wellness Program at Huntsman Cancer Institute since July 2014. She has studied qi gong for more than 17 years and also teaches tai chi classes for the institute.

Lock describes qi gong as a ritual that incorporates deep breathing, gentle movements and meditation intended to put the mind at ease and allow participants to "take time to slow down and feel" and "fill their own vessel," setting aside the stressful bustle of everyday responsibilities.

Beginning last fall, Lock helped facilitate research at Huntsman Cancer Institute looking into the practice's effects on cancer patients' pain, fatigue, sleep and other factors.

Then, "right in the middle of it, I became a patient," she recalled.

Lock was diagnosed with breast cancer in December, and despite finishing her chemotherapy with encouraging signs, her fight against the disease is not over. She will be undergoing radiation treatment nearly every day for more than three weeks beginning in late August. Through it all, the very qi gong students who Lock guided in their darkest days have likewise rallied to her aid.

"That group is giving me way more than they say I'm giving them right now," Lock told the Deseret News.

Many of the patients in her classes, themselves at various stages of fighting cancer or recovering from it, have helped Lock stay true to the ideas in qi gong and have buoyed her with their sincere friendship, she said. They've also told her what she can expect regarding "going through chemo, having no hair, having people look at you."

Some of the advice consists simply of practical tips about becoming bald, from buying a hat to using sunscreen, she said.

In the process, Lock has learned that as much as she strived to understand the fight her students were enduring before she was ever diagnosed, "knowing and experiencing are different things."

"Knowing people are going through cancer, and knowing and experiencing (it), are completely different. ... Will it make me stronger? Yeah. Does it give me more empathy for people? So much."

Nidia McMullen is a caregiver for her mother, a long-term brain cancer patient. Both of them tried qi gong in pursuit of relief from anxiety and stress. McMullen, now one of Lock's students, said Lock's close relationships with class members made the instructor's own diagnosis especially crushing.

"It's been difficult to see her go through those things," McMullen said.

McMullen has been inspired, however, to watch Lock "slow down and really be an example of what she's teaching." She and other students are personally invested in Lock's recovery, she said.

"(In qi gong), what happens to one happens to the other, and we can kind of help each other up," McMullen said. "I've really valued her insights, and it's really good to give her some of that back, to have that opportunity to reciprocate."

Trent Alvey, one of Lock's students who recently overcame breast cancer, agreed that she has seen the instructor overcome the traumatic news of her own diagnosis by leaning on the support system of her students.

"When she was diagnosed, she was devastated, as everybody is. … There is just such an exchange" between teacher and pupil, Alvey said. "I think that's maybe partly what has helped her, accepting (qi cong's ideas), but also having this group."

Lock has always been "a really powerful empathizer," Alvey said, but her own cancer took that ability to a new level.

Cassidy Doucette, nurse educator at Huntsman Cancer Institute, is the author of the qi gong study that was aided by using some of Lock's students as subjects. Doucette said she was encouraged to find that qi gong, a practice originating in China more than 4,000 years ago as the intersection of martial arts, wellness and spiritual contemplation, is strongly associated with multiple positive outcomes in cancer patients that include decreased fatigue, pain, anxiety and stress.

Subjects in the study practiced qi gong twice a week for five weeks, Doucette said, and filled out self-analyses both before and after. She completed her findings this spring.

She said the study's connections hold up even when accounting for several possible confounding variables, though she cautioned more research into qi gong is needed, particularly as it relates to the fundamental reasons why it is beneficial.

Doucette has also taken up qi gong herself and become one of Lock's students. Like McMullen and Alvey, she believes teaching qi gong to such a unique class gave Lock an immediate purpose to look toward after her world was turned upside down with the diagnosis.

"One of the most fascinating things about Toni that I saw was (how) she was able to accept it," Doucette said. "It was pretty unique to watch her."

Surrounded by friends forged in common trial, Lock is trying to stay in the moment rather than preoccupy herself about what may or may not be next, particularly as it concerns her looming radiation treatments.

"Am I excited (for those)? No. Am I going to go through it? Yes. I don't like to look too far ahead," Lock said. "I'm doing my best to go through the flow of life right now. That's what I teach my students."