I remember feeling nervous and giddy about my first day back at work after finishing cancer treatment. I had been on disability leave for almost a year, stuck in my own little bubble of illness, and finally hit that milestone where it was time for me to reenter the “real world.” The nature of my job had changed during my time away, which meant new management, new responsibilities and a new office location. Like a kid preparing for her first day of school, I felt anxious about what to wear, who I’d be sitting next to and whether people would judge my not-quite-there-yet pixie cut. But mostly I was excited to get back to living my life and release the pause button that had been inadvertently pushed on my career.

Unfortunately, that zeal and optimism was extremely short-lived.

In my fresh post-cancer existence, I was concerned about any external factors that might raise my stress levels and assumed that those in my work environment would be sensitive to my situation.

I was wrong.

My new manager was so tense that, within a day of my coming back, she told me she wanted to jump out the window. The girl whose position I was taking over complained about how terrible it was and sarcastically wished me “Good luck with this job!” It seemed that everyone around me was miserable and wanted to bring me down with them. I wanted to shout “At least you don’t have cancer!” but I remained quiet, completed my tasks and then headed home, where I immediately passed out on the couch from the sheer exhaustion of it all. I was still rebounding from 25 radiation treatments and four months of chemotherapy; the added strain of returning to work made me feel like I’d aged about a million years.

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As the weeks went on, I could feel my stress building; my chest felt tight and my appetite began to dwindle. I started to worry about what my job might be doing to my health. I had zero interest in what I was doing, and I felt that my talents were being wasted and my skills taken for granted. Each night I’d go home in tears, crying to my husband that I didn’t want to waste my days being unhappy when I had this new-found pressure to live each day to the fullest. I kept thinking “I survived cancer for this?”

After a couple of months of “sticking it out” and attempting to improve my situation, I decided I was no longer willing to be complacent about my unsatisfying job. Life suddenly felt short, and I didn’t want to sit back and watch it float right past me. I grabbed a few things from my desk, walked out of the building and never went back.

At first I was furious with cancer for taking away my ability to feel content as long as I was receiving a paycheque and for making me think I deserved more out of life. But then I recognized the incredible opportunity that lay before me: to be able to start over, regroup and search for something that could potentially bring joy and purpose into my life rather than grief and tedium. The possibilities suddenly seemed endless – which was daunting yet thrilling.

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Through a lot of reflection and soul-searching, I realized that I won’t be happy unless I have a job where I feel like I’m doing something meaningful. I want to feel that if this whole cancer thing goes south, my life and work will have had some sort of lasting impact.

With that lofty goal came a certain amount of pressure but also a sense of clarity. I started looking into non-profit organizations that help people deal with cancer, and I have been making my way through a series of contracts, putting my newfound passion for helping others to good use. I also gain immense satisfaction from my writing – every time I receive an email from someone telling me I have helped him or her through a dark time, it brings meaning to my seemingly random and unfortunate luck. Cancer pushed me down a different road from the one I had been travelling, and, though I wish I had stumbled upon it another way, I’m grateful I ended up here.

Since leaving my job and committing to being happier in my work life, I’ve become a sort of urban legend among people who know me or hear about me: the girl who threw caution to the wind and quit her job in pursuit of something better. Friends come to me for advice, asking how they can follow in my footsteps. But I’m no guru. I know everyone’s situation is unique, and I can’t claim to have discovered all the answers. I can, however, tell you that we all deserve to be happy in our jobs and in how we spend our days. I’m still searching for that elusive dream job, but I know I’m finally on the right path rather than just aimlessly trudging along. The next chapter is just ahead of me, and I’m excited to see what it holds.

Something tells me it’s going to be a great story.

Stephanie Gilman’s journey to reboot her life
#lifereboot: Stephanie Gilman walks on the edge
How our #lifereboot columnist spent a day in silence