Benefactor Stories > The Splinter Family

The Splinter Family

By Christine Tully

A cancer diagnosis could have defined Jim Splinter’s life. He chose otherwise.

In December 2019, Jim learned he had a glioblastoma, a malignant tumor that affects the brain or spinal cord. Glioblastoma is a rare cancer, with around 14,000 people in the United States diagnosed each year. The five-year survival rate is only 6.9%.

“The doctors were quite frank with me, you know, about life expectancy, but that wasn’t what I had envisioned for my life,” Jim said. “I used this as a source of motivation, to be resilient. I wanted to defy the odds of my life expectancy.”

A life-changing diagnosis

In October 2019, Jim visited the doctor with bouts of dizziness and unsteadiness while standing. It was assumed that Jim had a sinus infection that wasn’t going away. After a second course of antibiotics and steroids, Jim started feeling better.

But over the next two months, his wife, Vicki, began to realize something was not right. She and Jim traveled to a conference together in California, and throughout the trip Jim felt foggy and fatigued. Vicki recalled a moment while going through airport security where Jim had wandered away, and she found him standing in a daze in the middle of the check-in area.

“He kept having little hiccups where he didn’t seem like himself,” Vicki said.

On December 17, 2019, after a meeting at work, Jim came home because he wasn’t feeling well. Vicki was downstairs in their home wrapping Christmas presents when she received a text from Jim upstairs asking for help. He had tingling on his left side. Vicki thought Jim was having a heart attack or stroke and immediately called 911.

They headed to the emergency room at Mayo Clinic Health System in Austin, Minnesota. There, Jim received an MRI that revealed a mass on his brain. The medical team quickly coordinated with their colleagues to immediately get Jim to Mayo Clinic in Rochester where he was diagnosed with glioblastoma. Physicians told him that the odds of surviving the first year were about 50-50. The best outcome was to stabilize his tumor to stop it from growing.

“With the diagnosis, I was thinking about how it was a life-or-death situation. Glioblastoma is a very intimidating form of cancer,” Jim said. “I was hoping that there was an opportunity for me to continue living a fulfilling life.”

The physicians at Mayo Clinic wasted no time to start treatment. Five days after his diagnosis, Jim underwent brain surgery to biopsy and confirm the tumor. Four days after that, the Splinters met the oncology team that would fight Jim’s cancer. The following days Jim had orientation for chemotherapy and radiation. Jim began his first six weeks of radiation on January 2 — a little over two weeks after his diagnosis.

“Everything happened so quickly,” Jim said. “We felt really supported by the oncologists and everyone in our Mayo Clinic experience. We were trying to process all this information in a short period of time.”

Despite a life-changing diagnosis, Jim kept his spirits up. Having overcome many difficulties throughout his childhood, Jim followed his family mantra to keep him going: Splinters never give up. He often thought of his two daughters during his cancer journey, and he felt determined to watch them get married.

Jim and Vicki tried to keep their difficult situation lighthearted. At the time of his radiation treatment, Jim was working as the group vice president for Hormel Foods Corporation, developing new food products. One of his biggest accomplishments was rebranding SPAM. Each day before treatment, he’d share a fun fact with the staff about SPAM, like how many cans of SPAM were produced in a week. Once his radiation was finished, Jim brought the team SPAM swag bags.

“They took good care of me. Everybody was working hard,” Jim said. “I wanted to keep it as lighthearted as I could and be the best cancer patient they’ve ever had.”

Moving forward

After nine months of chemotherapy and radiation, Jim and Vicki received the best news they could have imagined: Jim’s tumor stopped growing.

“If you didn’t know Jim’s medical history, you wouldn’t know he has glioblastoma today,” said Jian Campian, M.D., Ph.D., Jim’s current oncologist. “We’re continuing our research to find new and better treatments to advance care for patients like Jim.”

Although the tumor is not gone, Jim is living his life as he intended. He visits Mayo Clinic in Rochester every three months where they measure his glioblastoma and ensure it’s not growing.

“We’re now at four years past his diagnosis, and he’s here,” Vicki said. “It was a very bleak picture that we had originally, and we were preparing ourselves for the worst. I didn’t realize how much fight he had inside of him.”

In their spare time, Jim and Vicki stay active and are focused on keeping their best health by biking, running and swimming. Jim walked his daughters down the aisle in 2021, and Jim and Vicki welcomed their first grandchild in January.

They continue to give back to their community by mentoring other families going through glioblastoma diagnoses. They also volunteer in their local community helping underserved populations and support educational initiatives for underrepresented college students. The Splinters are also generous benefactors of Mayo Clinic, giving because the mission aligns closely with their family values.

“I would not be here without Mayo — I am convinced of that,” Jim said. “Mayo Clinic is a place to find hope and healing. I would not be here without the care I have received.”