How to Explain an Embarrassing Illness

Antibiotics, originally uploaded to Flickr by AJC1.How much should you share at work about an illness? Reader L, suffering from a kidney infection, wonders…

I’d be curious to hear your opinion on how much to share with people about work about a recent illness. I was rushed to the hospital with a serious kidney infection and am looking at a significant amount of recovery time. If it were, for example, pneumonia, I wouldn’t hesitate to share the diagnosis just for the sake of giving people as much info as possible about when they can expect me back and how helpful I can be from home. But given the link to UTIs/sex/poor hygiene, I’m somewhat hesitant to share this one. But as a lawyer in a male-dominated field (although a very open and accepting office) I also don’t want to contribute to a culture that stigmatizes having female anatomy. What do you think would be appropriate? Thanks (and due to the topic, I’d prefer to remain anonymous).

Feel better, reader L! I actually did not know that kidney infections are related to poor UTIs/sex/poor hygiene, and a look at the Mayo Clinic’s page doesn’t really scream “sex! poor hygiene!” to me. I suspect I would look at this the way I looked at my eye problem a few years ago — it was a normal problem that, had I been attentive to my own health would not have become such an issue. But because I was a Type-A worker, focused on the job, I wasn’t attentive to my own health, and one thing led to another and I wound up with a serious, scary issue.  Actually, now that I think about it, I got walking pneumonia in my teens from “working through” a serious cold (strep, if I remember correctly), and another friend actually got proper pneumonia (and now has permanently reduced lung capacity) because she worked through her illness as well.  (Ladies! Why do we do this to ourselves?)

I suppose in this circumstance I would just tell people who needed to know, “kidney infection,” and move on.  If you withhold information (such as just saying “it’s an infection,”) people will be more suspicious and questioning, whereas if you tell them “kidney infection” it sounds sufficiently serious but vague to the non-MDs out there among us.  According to the Mayo Clinic page kidney infections can also be related to kidney stones, which I hear of much more commonly with men — so I think it won’t raise too many eyebrows in your male-dominated environment. (Pictured above: Antibiotics, originally uploaded to Flickr by AJC1.)

Readers, what would you tell your bosses about a kidney infection?  Furthermore, has anyone else noticed a propensity to be overly stoic and “work through” illnesses that require medical attention early on?  (Here’s my tip: if it hurts to do anything normal — such as, say, swallow water — it’s time to see a doctor asap.)


  1. I definitely have always just worked through illnesses, which has led to very serious medical issues. To anyone reading this: go to the doctor and rest. Seriously, I’ve had major issues and continue to have some due to ignoring/assuming I could get through it. (I was brought up that way.) I still have trouble saying to myself that okay, I’m sick, I need to rest for a day today instead of losing days or week(s) later. But it is SO important!

    I personally am very quiet about my illnesses and medical issues (as I am about most things), but things like this are necessary to tell your boss. I would tell your boss or whoever else needs to know that you are taking a sick day, leaving it at kidney infection, and then anyone else who asks is just told it was a serious infection. When you don’t tell people the specifics, hopefully they are decent and don’t ask more.

  2. Reading this from home today, went in, felt awful and ducked out of a meeting. It’s the couch and old (when it was still good) Glee eps for me today. I only took half a sick day the whole of the last fiscal year and am trying to be better at not putting on a stiff upper lip.

  3. I’m also a lawyer in a male-dominated field.

    About 5 years ago, I had a kidney infection caused by a s*x-induced UTI that the doc didn’t think I needed cipro for (silly doc–why prescribe an antibiotic for a UTI that doesn’t kill e. coli–the #1 cause of UTIs?). Luckily, the levaquinn worked and I didn’t need to go to the hospital. I didn’t tell anyone at the office–I just had a ton of doctor’s appointment within 2 weeks. But it was the kind of office where no one cared if you were actually in the office.

    Looking back, I don’t think it’s a big deal. Kidney infections can be caused by any number of things and, if it’s known you have a SO, I think people assume you are having s*x and don’t blink an eye. If you feel really awkward, I have a friend who gets recurring UTIs because she “clenches”–nothing to do with s*x.

    • Just a quick (useless note). Levaquin is a sister drug to cipro and actually has broader coverage. More and more UTIs are from bugs that are cipro-resistant and levaquin is the drug of choice now if there is a high degree of resistance in your community.

      • karenpadi :

        I don’t like cipro but it’s way better than levaquin. The levaquin had the worst side effects. It was worse than the kidney infection. But at least it worked.

        And I forgot to add to my post: I did tell HR (but not in writing–it wasn’t that kind of firm) that I was dealing with a serious infection and that I might be admitted to the hospital the next day if the levaquin wasn’t working.

    • I Love My OB-Gyn :

      Best medical intervention in my life, ever: after years of UTIs, she simply said “Take one of these [Macrobid] every time you *@&$&.” Not a UTI since, going on six years.

      • My doctor did the same thing- best idea ever. He writes a prescription at my yearly exam and I don’t have to worry about it. Love it.

        Personally I don’t think of UTIs when I think of a kidney infection- they can be caused by other things. I wouldn’t worry that people are going to judge you, I certainly wouldn’t.

  4. dragonlady :

    When I told male supervisors that I was going to be out for a minor surgery without giving the reason (wh/was for a “lady part” issue), one actually tried to stop me when I started to explain that the surgery was for a “benign hyperplasia”, the other just wished me well. A well-trained supervisor will not ask what your medical issue is and does not want to know.

    • This. No explanation is needed, other than a note from your doctor saying, “L needs to be off from work from X to Y. L has work restrictions in the form of A and B. I expect these restrictions to last through C.”

    • Not being snarky here, but I would never assume that a partner or supervising attorney in a law firm is a “well-trained supervisor.” People would be shocked (or, maybe not) at how poorly attorneys manage their subordinates.

      • LOL, totally agree

      • ha! My thoughts exactly. Who trains lawyers to be managers??

      • Not just lawyers, all supervisors. In my office, after a sick day I look forward my supervisor (and some coworkers) asking me WHY I was out sick. How inappropriate it that?!

        • PharmaGirl :

          Yup. I once had a supervisor who required that you spoke to someone on the phone to tell them you were sick and he would then drill them about how you ‘sounded.’ He would then go talk about you behind your back and complain that you were out sick (claiming you were faking it). I was so afraid to call in that I once went in waaaay too sick to work and got in a car accident on the way home.

  5. First, I just got the Beardo ad. I’ve never been to the site mentioned on the other thread. Interesting!

    Second, does anyone have any suggestions for a primary care/internist in the Boston area, preferably within easy commute of the B or C green lines (I’m fine with a transfer, but I’d prefer to not have a lot of travel when going to the doctor for times that I’m sick)? I’m interested in having a good doctor who knows what she is talking about (ahem, not my current one). If you happen to know if the doctor has another specialty (cardio, neuro, gyno, etc.), that would be great. I can google, though! TIA

    • For a PCP, I really like Roberta Parks. She’s affiliated with Beth Israel and has an office right downtown, next door to the Old South Meeting House, which is great for appointments during the middle of the work day if you work in the financial district. I will say that the office itself is kind of small/drab and located in an old building, but if you can look past that, they’re great. Here’s her info:

      I also like the OB/GYN department of Harvard Vanguard at their Post Office Square location. I’ve never used any of their other specialists though.

    • Belated reply, its not super super easy commute from the B or C, but Dr. Patricia Raney at the Fenway Community Health is the bomb. She’s never not been able to fit me in within 24-48 hours and she handles all the lady part problems too.

      • Chiming in with my agreement. My doctor was actually at the South End location but seriously, everyone at Fenway is really good and I miss them now that I’ve left Boston.

        • HereThere :

          Thank you so much! I’m glad I checked again for late replies. :)

          I’ll check out both of those doctors and see about Fenway, especially if they are good enough others miss them after moving away!

  6. I had a kidney infection (sorry for you! they suck!) and I told people at work about it. Mine probably did start with a UTI, but I don’t recall anyone having the wink-wink-nudge-nudge reaction to what might have caused it. In fact, the only thing I really remember about it, other than how f—ing sick I was, was a couple of older male colleagues telling me kidney infections were NOTHING compared to passing kindey stones.

    • Oh, and the reason my UTI led to a kidney infection is that I was under deadline and “worked through” rather than getting the UTI treated. Yep.

      • I cannot imagine working through a UTI. It feels like a knife down there. Oh, it hurts just thinking about it. Ouch!!!!

  7. How timely. My doctor prescribed psychiatrist therapy for depression. There doesn’t seem to be any psychiatrists in my area with hours outside of normal business hours. I will have to leave work for 2+ hours during normal business hours once a week for months. I am not sure how I will explain this behavior to my colleagues and bosses.

    • Kontraktor :

      Any way you could make the last or first appointment of the day with the doctor and just come in a little late or leave a little early? This might be more inocuous. In an old office of mine, we had a lot of people making arrangements with the managers to have ‘Thursday be their early day” or whatever because they were doing after school classes or had whatever ongoing commitment. Of course they made up the hours later, it was just that there was an understanding that they left early/came late/whatever on certain days before of certain commitments.

      Could you try to arrange something like that (come late/leave early one day a week) and just tell your employers it is for ongoing/regular medical care? That you are treating a routine issue and will keep them updated on the status of your appointments?

      If you did have to leave and come back to the office, could you pick the closest place to your work to minimize travel time? Schedule the appointment around lunch so others are out of the office around that time as well and your absense for a little longer doesn’t look as pronounced? Any way to work from home those days?

    • “I have a medical issue that will require a series of treatments. Unfortunately, the treatments are only available during business hours. I will be out on Thursday mornings from X to Y.”

      If you need to, also include that you will stay late or come in early (if that makes sense in your situation with your current issues) to make up that time.

      Yo. It’s your health. Take care of it. There’s only a few comments up at this point and several people have already revealed long term health issues or complications from ignoring illness. Depression is no different. I hope you get well soon.

    • soulfusion :

      I am in this situation as well. While my relationship with the partner I work with the most is such that she knows about my therapy (but I’ve found people are pretty understanding when depression is sparked by cancer) but in terms of others I work with I just indicate I have a meeting/appointment out of the office and schedule around it. I think the only thing your supervisor or anyone you work with needs to know is as EC MD indicated – you have ongoing medical treatment that is required for your health but it will not interfere with your ability to work other than the hour and a half or so you will be out of pocket.
      Also, as a note, I don’t believe kidney stones are primarily a male thing – I have had two run-ins and they are PAINFUL!! Anyone can get them so drink your water :)

  8. HereThere :

    Just wanted to say good luck and congratulations on taking the steps yourself for this. It is a tough choice to make, but recognizing and working to remedy is a huge, important step of which you should be proud.

    I would probably just tell them it is for a weekly medical appointment if necessary. However, your boss might require more information. I would suggest scheduling it at a time not many tend to be in the office, if possible.

    Also, try contacting nearby offices to see if they would be willing to make a 5 or 6 pm appointment. Even if it isn’t a listed appointment time, I imagine a number of them do have regular appointments outside of the typical (except not really typical) work week – they just don’t advertise it.

  9. I have no s*x or hygiene associations with kidney infection associations either. I think most people don’t. If someone had a liver problem, would you automatically assume it’s because they drink too much? Probably not, right? I certainly wouldn’t. People have health issues, it’s not unusual. Say what’s wrong and move on. Most people will wish you well and not overthink, and I doubt any sane coworker would bother googling it to find out the possibilities. If you’re vague, on the other hand, you may raise all sorts of questions.

    Don’t worry about it and feel better.

    • soulfusion :

      I agree that vagueness raises more questions. I recently had a conversation with my brother who works at a firm where a partner quite suddenly disappeared and is on a prolonged leave of absence. He said this has resulted in all kinds of speculation ranging from cancer/death in the family/other illness to mental breakdown/alcoholism/drug addiction. I made the personal decision to be up front with my cancer diagnosis at work because I watched a co-worker be more private which left those who knew in an awkward position when asked about her. But I realize people are much more private than I am and there is unfortunately a hierarchy of socially acceptable illnesses (cancer is well understood – depression is more taboo and certain illnesses have social stigmas).

  10. Thoracic Outlet Gimp :

    What about things that could directly impact work performance, like RSI or carpal tunnel-type injuries? I’ve been stepping out for physical theraphy and my special keyboard/mouse/ergonomic desk setup is so painfully obvious that I go out of my way to meet anywhere but my own office and am always trying to “compensate” for the possibility that my productivity may be seen as lower, or my medical issue may be seen as less legitimate (even though it clearly qualifies for ADA protection). Thoughts on this?

    • Blonde Lawyer :

      No specific advice but I hate the negative reputation RSI injuries have. It seems that some years ago and carpal tunnel = summer office and now people seem quite skeptical of it. I was doing a large doc review as a new lawyer and started getting severe pain in my wrist. I posted about it here wondering how lawyers worked those hours for 10 years and seemed fine and here I was 3 months in with pain. I got TONS of great advice here to take care of my injury quick before it became permanent. I got an ergo set up, did home exercises and nipped it.

      A couple years later it was coming back (this time I think from too much scrolling on iphone and netbook) and found my old post here, got a brace, did the exercises, moved my mouse to my left hand and I’m almost good as new. I wish there were more people discussing it and being open about it so people would recognize it and treat it quick.

      • Thoracic Outlet Gimp :

        Could you link me to that post? I’ve done decently well at finding physical therapy/medical care and trying out every ergonomic gadget Amazon sells until I optmized my workspace, but there are times when the pain simply demands a longer break than my conscience will allow. And if I miss PT for a week and try to type anything, I’m straight back to square one.

        How did you deal with this at work when you couldn’t avoid making some adjustments to your workflow and allocating more time to rest and healthcare? I’ve been “recovering” from what looks like a permanent RSI for nearly a year now, and it feels dishonest to assure supervisors and coworkers that it’s just a temporary thing at this point, or to allow them to fully rely on me when I can’t even rely on my own hands to be at my disposal for typing, handwriting, or even holding a toothbrush from one day to the next. But I’m also afraid of selling myself short or undermining my ability to get assignments I’d really like to work on, or even jobs I’d like to be offered/retain. It just seems so unfair all around – the only way i can see it is that i want to work at least as hard as everyone else but i’m condemned to look lazy tday in exchange for preserving my physical ability to work tomorrow. Anyone else been through this?

        • I’ve only suffered on and off from mild RSI (my department calls it `grad student black lung’), so I’ve never had nearly the problems that you seem to have had. However, I know some fellow grad students who have had severe problems. When writing a dissertation, not writing is not really an option. One of the guys got special computer software that allowed him to navigate the computer simply through voice, including surfing the web, writing, coding, etc.; it was pretty high functioning, and let him be very productive without having to use his hands. Is this a possibility for you? (i.e., could you install software on your computer and talk to the computer without bothering anyone too much?)

          • That’s Dragon Naturally Speaking
            You definitely need a private office to use it :-).

        • Blonde Lawyer :

          Mine wasn’t as severe as yours. The brace I use is the IMAK Smart Glove from Rite Aid. For exercises, I grasp a stress ball and stretch my fingers upward and fanned out. I inherited an ergo keyboard and swapped desks for one that wasn’t being used that had the lowered keyboard tray. I requested the wireless mouse so I can change positions and hands with it. I didn’t really have to deal w/ my coworkers much besides explaining what the brace was when they asked and why I needed a new mouse. I swapped the desks before the wrist issue but at that point it was a back/neck/shoulder issue. I just tried to address it fast and matter of factly and move on quickly. “Partner, do you mind if I swap my desk for the one not being used in office J? I’m having some back and neck trouble and will be much more comfortable with that set up.” Partner responded, “sure, leave a message for the maintenance guy to swap them.”

          I didn’t have to deal with time out of the office or not completing work. One thing I did is tried to do as much off computer as I could. I printed docs to read instead of scrolling. I dictated some stuff instead of typing. Etc. I’ll find the post and link back for you.

          • Blonde Lawyer :

            Here is the post I referred to: I was “anon 23” then:
            This post just made me take my issue seriously which I know you are already doing.

            This post might also help you:

  11. I’ve generally been honest. It took a while to open up about my illnesses, but once I did, it made everything a lot easier. I have bipolar (which I am quieter about, but when people inquire about my daily medication or having to depart for counseling appointments, I’m up front about it), fibromyalgia (which has resulted in FMLA time off, medical treatments, and medication), mild arthritis in my hands (which makes hand writing difficult and requires ergonomic keyboards), and I’ve also had to be out of the office for gall bladder removal and a tubal ligation. Pretty much everyone I work with is aware of them. Sometimes it causes unnecessary concern on their part, but I would rather they know than be surprised or confused when I’m out of the office unexpectedly or when I need to use a cane or take pain medicine regularly. I am not a secretive person by nature, and it’s served me well.

    The most personal one was the tubal – it came about after a mild cancer scare and a series of counseling visits about my phobia of pregnancy (I went weeks without sleeping through the night from nightmares) and I was honest. Choosing not to have children where I am from and in the environment I work in is considered incredibly bizarre, and I have had more stigma from that than any of my other problems, but I had to be up front in order to feel comfortable with it and for people to understand that I needed the “so when are you going to have kids?” questions to stop.

    • Why, hello, future!me (except for the bipolar; I “only” have panic disorder/depression). How did you get your employer to take your fibro seriously? I have no plans to apply for disability insurance; would a letter from my rheumatologist be enough? This had made life difficult even in getting an education. I suspect an employer would be easier to manage than a professor…

      I’m also gagging for a tubal, but I figure it won’t happen before I’m thirty. [long sigh]

      • Hey Cassie! Where are you located? If you’re near the Western Pennsylvania area, I can refer you to my doctor who signed my tubal surgery orders (after a 5 minute conversation. Amazing doctor! – I was 20 at the time, and now 24).

        I simply explained the condition to my boss, had my primary care doctor provide a letter and when it got worse, got one from a rheumatologist as well. I actually only needed the notes for the one time I was out for it for longer than a couple of hours and then for applying for FMLA.

        It’s a complicated process, and it can be really difficult to do all of the paperwork and all of the doctor visits. My rheumatologist/arthritis doctor actually *technically* diagnosed me with chronic pain/chronic fatigue and joint pain, but when I spoke to him about why, he said he just didn’t like to call it fibromyalgia (which was annoying) but my primary care doc helped me process the paperwork. A lot of it is having your doctor’s support, but being really up front with your bosses and explaining some of the ways it can affect your capabilities, but also explaining and showing how you are working against them, can make a difference. While my bosses know that some mornings I can’t get out of bed okay, and they know I can’t always get around well, I still have made it a priority to work out at the gym so that I can move towards a healthier body in general, I have had regular doctor visits to try new treatments, and just generally make sure they are aware I am trying my best to work in spite of the illness. It has gone relatively well.

        Getting teachers to understand is much harder! Thankfully I go to school online now, but it was awful when I would have classes during the winter and had to drive there when my legs were cramped. I still have a lot of trouble with exhaustion, but online makes my life easier!

        If you ever want to talk, please feel free to e-mail me. I’m at briesheldon at gmail. :)

  12. I’ve generally been honest. It took a while to open up about my illnesses, but once I did, it made everything a lot easier. I have bipolar (which I am quieter about, but when people inquire about my daily medication or having to depart for counseling appointments, I’m up front about it), fibromyalgia (which has resulted in FMLA time off, medical treatments, and medication), mild arthritis in my hands (which makes hand writing difficult and requires ergonomic keyboards), and I’ve also had to be out of the office for gall bladder removal and a tubal ligation. Pretty much everyone I work with is aware of them. Sometimes it causes unnecessary concern on their part, but I would rather they know than be surprised or confused when I’m out of the office unexpectedly or when I need to use a cane or take pain medicine regularly. I am not a secretive person by nature, and it’s served me well.

    The most personal one was the tubal – it came about after a mild cancer scare and a series of counseling visits about my phobia of pregnancy (I went weeks without sleeping through the night from nightmares) and I was honest. Choosing not to have children where I am from and in the environment I work in is considered incredibly bizarre, and I have had more stigma from that than any of my other problems, but I had to be up front in order to feel comfortable with it and for people to understand that I needed the “so when are you going to have kids?” questions to stop.

    I’ve also been hit badly by either ignoring illnesses or having doctors mis/under diagnose – hence the gallbladder surgery when I was 20. Nearly killed me, and I am more careful now. Also, blowing off a flu shot my first year in corporate almost lost me my job because I was out sick for over a week with a terrible bout of flu. Always get a flu shot!

  13. Whoa Nelly :

    Well, I posted this morning that I had a positive pregnancy test today for Kid #2 — and now I’m in a somewhat related dilemma: how do you break this type of [medical-ish] news to your staff?

    Obviously I won’t be telling people for awhile. FWIW, I’ll have been in this job for almost 3 years by the time Kid #2 is born, and I oversee a staff of seven in an organization of about 65 employees. I report straight to the CEO and work in education, so having kids is happily embraced. Not worried about the corporate/cultural reaction, just have no stinking clue how to go about this. One on one? Departmental meeting announcement? If it helps, I am the youngest (by about 6 months) person in our department as well.

    When Kid #1 was born, I worked in a different organization where I supervised exactly zero people, so any and all input would be helpful.

    • When it’s time, tell your boss. Casually mention it to a secretary or someone else who works with a lot of people or is generally gossipy. Word will get around, you won’t have to announce it.

      • Congratulations!

        I can’t offer you any advice on announcing, but I can tell you, do not just hope that word will get around. For me, it didn’t, and I had people remarking to co-workers that I was looking “kind of fat” and they were “worried about me.” In retrospect, their clueless inability to distinguish “kind of fat” from “obviously 8.5 months pregnant” is hilarious, but at the time, it just made me want to go home and cry and eat a lot of ice cream.

  14. I was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis last year, which very few people have heard of (and most who have heard of it conflate it with Crohn’s. It’s not Crohn’s.) My main worry was that someone would think I was going to the bathroom to do drugs, for how frequently I was getting up to go. Luckily I got it under control/no one ever asked.

    The one colleague I told about it kept suggesting I try gluten free, which was annoying as heck (wrong part of the digestive system). I’ve since changed companies and have decided not to tell anyone, ever, unless circumstances somehow forced it. Digestive conditions seem to be the last bastion of “ewwww, gross” judgment from people.

    • Anonymous :

      Sorry to hear you have UC. I have Crohn’s, and I’ve seen the nose wrinkle when I tell people. It makes the “my cousin has a friend with Crohn’s and he’s fine/cured it with diet/had horrible, repeated surgeries” stories more pleasant by comparison.

    • Blonde Lawyer :

      I also have Crohns as do two other regular posters here. We email about how much IBD sucks sometimes so feel free to email me to get in on that. [email protected]

      You might hear me discussing gluten and lactose on there but it is because I’m also gluten and lactose intolerant – not because I think gluten free cures IBD. :)

    • SarahJ, I have celiac myself. But I have two friends with ulcerative colitis whose MDs proscribed a gluten free diet: Both said it significantly helped them. The GF diet can be helpful to SOME (but not all) colitis patients. And the GF diet is not unhealthful in any way (just as a vegetarian diet isn’t unhealthy per se) and thus can be tried without a doctor’s permission. So I would say – don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it. Yes, I know that they are different diseases but gluten intolerance is more widespread than is known and can impact many body systems.

      • Your points are valid. In my case, one of my parents has celiac disease and it was the first thing my doctors looked into when my symptoms presented themselves. It was definitively ruled out, and I’ve had good results with medication. I’ve seen two gastroenterologists, and both have said they don’t think altering my diet would be any big help in managing my UC (though of course it wouldn’t hurt). My frustration stems from those without health issues who evangelize gluten-free living (or sugar-free, or paleo, etc.) as a cure-all, which is the category my former co-worker fell into.

    • OH HAI!

      You have a team of IBD sisters on this here board. Gluten-free wouldn’t help me at all — when I’ve gone down on gluten, I’ve just been miserable. Its really vegetables that are the main culprit. Its really important to remember that every person with UC and Crohn’s are DIFFERENT! (Not to mention that UC and Crohn’s are different!)

      Anyway, if you e-mail Blonde Lawyer she can pass along my e-mail, or you can e-mail me at [email protected] (though tell me if you do, I never check it). I used to be like you and never tell people, but then I got so sick for a long time I had no choice. Now I just figure its their problem, not mine. Oh…and if they tell me that “their cousin/sister/best friend’s mothers cousin cured it with xyz” I just smile and say “well, that’s really nice for them” and then kind of wander away.

      Good luck! Oh…and consider getting involved with your local chapter of CCFA or Team Challenge!

  15. Anonymous :

    I wouldn’t hesitate to say “kidney infection.” I have had three kidney stones and people understand and are seriously empathetic.

    Related question: I have a lesion on my sacrum. So far, we’ve taken a “wait and see” approach and I’ve mentioned to people at the office that I’ve had MRIs of my “lower back.” Now it appears that we cannot wait any longer and I need a biopsy. Two issues: 1) The MRI-guided biopsy requires going through some delicate anatomy and I anticipate not being able to sit for at least four days; and 2) Googling “sacral lesion” is seriously scary — the vast majority of lesions are malignant and quite frankly fatal.

    Of course, I’m not going to announce I have a sacral lesion and need a biopsy that goes through my nether regions. But would it be misleading, in the event that this turns very serious, to simply say “biopsy of a lesion in my back”? And if so, how would I justify not being able to come into the office for a couple days (hoping I can schedule for a Thursday and use a weekend), when so many biopsies are so straightforward and require no recovery? Or should I just use vacation days and stay mum? Advise me please!

    • “I’m having a lesion biopsied on my lower spine. I will schedule it on a Thursday so I can be back to work on Monday, since I won’t be able to sit for several days after the procedure.”

      Don’t google without a good diagnosis. The problem with google is the avalanche of information. Once you have a diagnosis, there are good sites that have great info and support. But don’t freak yourself out until you know where you are going with this.

      And best of luck.

    • soulfusion :

      I’m currently waiting for biopsy results (second memorial weekend in a row where I had a biopsy right before the holiday!!) and so I will just chime in with some support. All biopsies are not created equal. You don’t have to give anyone more details than you feel comfortable with especially since the results of a biopsy can vary so widely. And even the scariest biopsies can result in good news – I had an MRI guided bone biopsy of my sternum last year that, if positive, would have meant stage IV metastatic breast cancer instead of the more manageable diagnosis of stage II breast cancer – it was benign and we celebrated my status of “only” stage IIb. Good luck with the biopsy and recovery and let us know how it turns out.

      • Hey, must be extra emotionally stressful to go through biopsies after all you’ve been through. Thinking of you through this.

      • Anonymous :

        My oh my, what an incredible journey you’re on. Fingers crossed for unremarkable biopsy results … the waiting must be very difficult!

    • I had a borderline melanoma removed from that area last year (basically just inside top of crack). Hellish waiting for results from first biopsy then second surgery, but was okay. I was fairly open with office despite awkwardness, because I could work from home just fine for a week, but could not sit at office, so wanted to explain I was okay, just immobile. Also I was worked up into a skin cancer awareness frenzy and in a sharing mode about that. (am now most paranoid person about sun exposure, though that one never saw light of day). People didn’t ask many questions and one even said don’t tell me when I started too. It is fine to tell people you are having a procedure and having xyz temporary limitations afterwards. I think in my fear I deviated from that practice out of wanting the connection and feeling a need to be transparent.

    • I had to have a colonoscopy due to suspected familial polyposis at age 27… I just told my staff/boss/HR that I was having a medical procedure, and would need three days off for preparation and recovery. It worked well, but then, our staff was well trained not to ask medical questions, since it’s sensitive information according to HIPPA.

      If you have a member of your team who wants to know the nitty gritty and you don’t want to share, you can just politely tell them that you’d rather not talk about it, as it is not an appropriate discussion for work. If this team member happens to be a boss, politely refer him/her to the HIPPA act. Your boss doesn’t need to know why, just that you won’t be at work. And that you can bring a doctor’s note excusing you for the appropriate days/times.

  16. I was very upfront about my thyroid problems. I had to have my thyroid removed in December and I’ve had a very hard time finding the correct Synthroid dose since then. It mostly amounts to being exhausted and coming in late when I have stomach issues in the morning. I hate admitting it because I think it makes me look like I can’t cut it as a lawyer. Like I can’t work the hours required.

    I’m currently a judicial clerk and I was looking for employment while going through the worst of my symptoms. I wouldn’t say everyone was particularly understanding. I do not have one of the easy clerkships and I find myself working 50-60 hour weeks most of the time. I mostly just suffered through. But when I fell asleep in the car on the way home during a particularly horrible week, I decided to just suck it up and not work so much. And my reputation has been hurt by it. I know everyone is advocating honesty, but I wish I hadn’t told anyone.

    • I had a similar Synthroid experience a couple years ago…right at the beginning of tax season (I’m a CPA). It was horrible, and I took a lot of flak from insensitive people. I still have my thyroid, it just doesn’t work very well. On Cytomel now and feeling so much better. The doctor kept telling me that Synthroid wasn’t my problem, but I sure got a lot better once I stopped taking it.

  17. Kontraktor :

    Maybe I am just lucky in that I’ve never had severe health problems I’ve had to disclose, but I feel a little shocked at how scared people here seem to just take the time off and explain it matter of factly for necessary (if not critical) medical appointments to address health needs. I mean, you do what you need to do, especially if a situation or procedure is really involved or might lead to a serious result. Are people in the average work space completely callous and not at all understanding? I had a colleague once whose partner was suddenly diagnosed with cancer, and everybody in the office encouraged her to take the necessary time off to drive him to appointments/help with his post-op care/etc. She did not have to beat around the bush- she told people what was going on (in a very matter of fact way, ex, “Today he is having minor surgery to take a tissue sample for biopsy and he will require somebody to drive him home”), estimated the time off she thought she’d need, kept people updated with her schedule, and sent appreciation for everybody’s concern and well wishes.

    To those wondering how to tell your work you need down time to recover from a procedure: well, tell your work you need down time to recover from a procedure! I would hope it would be as simple as that. “Manager, I need to undersgo a somewhat invasive medical procedure. It’s going to require outpatient surgery, and my doctor has said I’ll need about 4 to 5 days of bed rest to recover. I am planning on scheduling the procedure for a Thursday to minimize time away from the office, but I wanted to let you know so that you are aware I will be away from the office for a few days. I will let you know any updates to my leave and schedule changes.”

    If they press for details and you are not close to them, just say, “It’s not a serious health issue right now, but I plan on keeping you informed of any emergencies or updates that come up.” If they are close to you, tell them what is going on in simple, not too detailed terms, and presumably if they are decent human beings they will be understanding and want you to take the time off work to get your test/procedure and recover.

    • This is all very much common sense, but not all employers are reasonable. At one point I worked in a law firm where I was the only woman. I had to take a few days off for a gynelogical problem, and because I didn’t want to discuss something so personal, I didn’t specify what the health problem was. Later, I heard from another (male) associate that the partners felt angry and betrayed that I hadn’t told them what my specific condition was.

    • You are lucky – both with good health and a nonjudgmental/supportive workplace!

      There’s definitely a heirarchy of conditions, from noble/tragic to stigmatized/”what did they expect?” E.g., everyone asks if the person diagnosed with lung cancer smoked.

    • Some people are nice, normal, understanding, compassionate people. And other people suck. When I had my first round of cancer treatment a few years ago, I was called in by the section head to discuss why I didn’t seem as “committed” to my work and that other associates were starting to complain that they had to pick up my slack when I was out of the office for chemo and radiation. As furious and frustrated as it made me, in retrospect I’m glad he was enough of an a$$ to tell me. Not only did it let me know where he fell in the decent-sucky spectrum, but it also told me all I needed to know about my fellow associates.

    • Kontraktor :

      I think it’s horrible people in the work place can’t be matter of fact about medical and health issues. Truly truly 100% horrible.

      For people having to disclose conditions or procedures, I would still just say to be as matter of fact and simple as possible, gauging the level of detail based on how supportive your office is. I don’t necessarily think even more ’embarassing’ problems like GI issues or the OP’s kidney issues or even gynecological issues are doomed to be extremely awkward if one presents them in a non-awkward, watered down way. Ex, “Thank you for your concern. I’m just following up with a routine gynecological/primary care procedure. I will be out for the afternoon.” or “I am going to be away from the office to undergo some treatment for a kidney infection. It is not serious but will require a few days of recovery time.” or “I have some ongoing GI issues that I see my doctor for on a routine basis. Thanks for asking if I was okay when I had to go to that urgent doctor’s appointment last week, but everything is being monitored.”

      I suppose getting doctor’s notes, filing FMLA paper work as another commenter suggested, and making sure to make it seen that you are adjusting your schedule and hours to accomodate the visit are ways of mitigating the circumstances in very non-understanding offices. Also, taking annual leave is always an option if you 100% do not want questions.

    • Unhealthy :

      To be fair, I keep most of my medical conditions to myself and perhaps immediate family. A few friends know about some of the large stuff, but I’m literally the only person who knows all of my medical stuff (other than my doctors, but I doubt they really remember). I just prefer to keep personal stuff personal.

    • Some employers will be friendly right up until it impacts their bottom line. I followed company policy as closely as my disability would permit. The first time, I ended up on temporary disability/FMLA leave precisely because the workplace was so toxic. Asked for work-from-home accommodations; got told “You’ll work in our sweatshop or you won’t work.” So I lost that job. The second time, there was supposedly no work-from-home option. Just me and a lot of pain. Sacked.

      And people wonder why I’m aiming for an MSW/LCSW? Hang out your shingle as a therapist, make your own hours. That, or you go to work for the state, where you actually get benefits and possibly even have recourse if your employer is playing silly buggers with the ADA.

  18. I’ve found that saying I’ll be out due to a “medical issue” can be effective, especially when that communication includes the fact that my doctor will be sending FMLA paperwork. I’ve had to do this a couple of times and no one has asked any questions about the nature of the problem. This may seem overly uptight – and I realize it may not be effective at every workplace – but I’ve worked places that were really bad about blabbing, including the HR staff. I also have found the “medical issue” explanation helpful when I’m out for just one day. If I call in “sick,” when I come back it seems like everyone wants to ask me what my symptoms were, assuming I was out with something contagious. I know this is well-intentioned, but it can make for some awkward exchanges.

  19. Once you make sure that relevant people are informed about your absences and any ways that your work will be impacted, it seems to me that whether or not you give any specific details about medical problems depends very much on you as a person, how stressful you find the event, and how you cope with that stress. For a kidney infection, I’d probably just tell the relevant people that I had a kidney infection and could be expected back at work in X days. For a biopsy, I would probably just say that I was having a “medical procedure” requiring me to be absent for X days, because I’d probably be stressed and worried about the outcome and wouldn’t want to hear other people’s stories/guesses/etc. I have a medical condition that took a long series of tests to diagnose, and during that time I was very quiet at work about it because I found it very stressful to have to answer any questions about it since it was very unclear what exactly was wrong with me. Now that I know what I’m dealing with, I’m much more willing to be candid about it. A coworker who had a similarly difficult to diagnose problem was very open about it at work, I think because it helped her to be able to talk about it and she found the secret keeping part to be stressful.

  20. Dessert Doctor :

    I just have to agree that it’s really uncomfortable to have to talk about medical problems that occur in the “nether regions”, so my sympathies to the OP and other posters. I was recently diagnosed with a pilonidal cyst which is a painful, recurring cyst that forms on your coccyx (i.e., essentially at the top of your bum crack, apologies if that sounds crass). There doesn’t seem to be much known about what causes this, but I fear that people will think it has something to do with being dirty, or overweight, or something to that effect. I haven’t fully figured out how much to tell my colleagues when I need treatment (thus far, lancing of the cyst followed by bed rest for a few days; eventually it may require surgery to remove the whole area of offending skin that could have me out of commission for at least a week). It just feels awkward to try to determine the right level of detail, even when responding to well-meaning friends or colleagues who notice your absence.

    • I have/had a pilonidal cyst. It flared up about 3 times in a 2 year period, and has not bothered me in years. In those days, I said that I have a benign cyst near my lower spine that occasionally gets inflamed and makes it painful to sit for long periods.

      I had to be out for two weeks to have an ovarian cyst removed. The work situation I was in at the time was a little weird, and I had to disclose the reasons for the surgery to my two male bosses. It was what it was. I just did it like I was ripping off a band aid, and changed the subject.

      And when I had the UTI turned kidney infection, I just said, “they aren’t sure what’s causing these stomach aches but they think it might be in my kidneys so I’m going to have a few doctors appointments over the next few weeks to figure it out. “

    • lucy stone :

      I had one of those junior year of college. It SUCKED. It’s been 8 years and it has not reoccured so I am hoping you don’t have yours come back either.

    • I have a recurring bartholin cyst, so I can relate to the extreme discomfort (sitting, standing, walking, not moving depending on size) and lack of upfrontness to others about what it is. Plus, if the conversation were to even move beyond what I had, I can’t imagine it would be a comfortable one for anyone!

      I have no suggestions, just wanted to let you know I can relate a little.

    • Giiiirrrrrl, I am so sorry. I’ve had two. They blow. I hope yours doesn’t require surgery.

  21. lucy stone :

    I had a four week UTI last year and had a jury trial fall in the middle of it. There are not words to describe how embarrassed I was to sit there as a 27 y/o newly engaged attorney and tell the middle-aged male judge and opposing counsel why I would need frequent bathroom breaks. They were both totally understanding about the whole thing, and the judge just mentioned that someone in the courtroom had a medical issue that would require us to take regular breaks. At one point I had finished direct exam on my arresting officer and didn’t want to ask for a break before cross because I didn’t want to anger the defense attorney. He asked for a break because he thought I might want one. People are more understanding than you’d think sometimes.

  22. U, lots of people here seem to think you shouldn’t be embarrassed. I don’t think that’s up to anyone but you to decide. Would it work to let your supervisor know in very plain terms and also say right then that you are embarrassed by talking about your innards? Then, one would hope, they could clear the way for you when need be, or if your supervisor would handle it well, you could even tell people who continue to press after you say you can’t be there for medical reasons to take it up with your boss if they must. I would suggest trying not to show how embarrassed you feel, or people for whom kidneys were not associated with anything sketchy might pick up on your vibe.
    Take care of yourself!

  23. Anonymous Girl :

    I had a s*x induced UTI and I didn’t talk about it in the office, but it’s an extremely common medical issue that lots of people get. It’s very common among women and honestly, most women I know have gotten them at one point. A kidney infection can be an unfortunate result of one of those stubborn infections, but I don’t think anyone would judge someone for getting a kidney infection. Saying you have a Kidney infection (or a UTI) is nothing like announcing you have chlamidya or the like.

  24. Just wanted to chime in as another person who seems to get chronic UTIs – for a while it was one every 6 weeks or so. One time in college I even completed (and kicked a**, I might add) a final debate that was half the grade while I had a kidney infection that originated from a UTI. I was so flipping sick. How/why I did I do that??? I had to take so many antibiotics and then different antibiotics because the first few didn’t work to get over it I end up getting c-diff a few weeks later, which was a whole different kind of misery. Ah, my war stories.

    Anyway, I used to be more embarrassed about them just because I was more private, and was super vague about why I was sick. Now I just tell people, because they’re super common and almost everyone has had one/knows someone who has had one. Mine are not associated with s*x/unsanitary habits at all, and I don’t think most normal people will really think that much about it if you tell them.

  25. In a male dominated office, all you really need to say is “It’s a female issue.” and 90% of men will drop the issue right there.

  26. I wouldn’t bat an eyelash if someone told me they had a kidney infection. Yes, UTIs can be caused by sex and poor hygiene and can lead to a kidney infection but it’s not always the cause.

    You also don’t need to tell you boss what you have. You can say you had a serious or minor health issue, but it’s all taken care of and you’ll be back to work 100%.

  27. What about yeast infections? I get them chronically and for the most part have learned to keep them under control, but I have had a couple times where I’ve had to leave work mid-day because it became unbearable, or had to miss work altogether because of it. I find it to be more distracting and unpleasant than the flu when it gets bad, it’s definitely a legitimate illness; however, to everyone else, I look and sound completely healthy from the outside. I always struggle with this because I don’t want people to think I am faking illness.

  28. I’ve had this exact experience of being taken to the hospital, finding out I had a kidney infection, and then needing to call in sick from work for 2 or 3 days. I didn’t want my all male group of coworkers to assume anything about the cause of the infection so I just told my boss I was “really sick” and left it at that. I realize now that I probably should have been a bit more forthcoming. I can see how a vague illness that keeps you out for multiple days could sound questionable from a manager’s perspective.

    It’s also nice to hear that I’m not the only one out there with the multiple UTI problem. It’s under control now but I’m glad to know I’m not some sort of anomaly.

  29. Nobody’s business. If you want to say anything, I would stick with, “I had a minor problem, but was so focused on work and life that I didn’t get it taken care of and it got more serious.” You don’t even have to say that.

  30. Since UTIs have come up, I just had to add another war story: I got a killer UTI that started the night. before. the. bar. exam. So I took the bar exam with a UTI. THAT was fun.

    Anyway, the discussion of people’s experiences with employers make me really grateful for the judge I’m clerking for – I have had to check out some random medical things recently and have had to take off early for a bunch of doctor’s appointments, and my judge hasn’t blinked an eye. Since I’m technically a temporary employee I don’t get any sick leave, so it could be a pain in the ass. (Maybe it helps that he used to practice employment law?)

    Wishing everyone here the best of health!

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