Then 29, the news rocked her world. Her kids were only 3 years and 10 months old.
“Initially it was difficult because I had two young children,” she said. “I felt like I was living in fog; I felt hopeless.”
But she started to educate herself about the disease in order to beat it.
“I went into survival mode,” Lenardo said. “I turned it into my motivation to get well.”
With a son just starting pre-kindergarten, and a daughter learning how to walk, this was one battle Lenardo knew she couldn’t lose.
Diagnosed in June 2001, she had her surgery in July that year and then started chemotherapy in August.
“So for me, everything went quickly,” she said. The doctor’s appointments and repeated tests weren’t easy.
But Lenardo developed a greater understanding of life. She had an epiphany.
“It made me a stronger person, it made me prioritize things in my life,” she said. “I slowed down, I started to appreciate the things I was taking for granted. I looked at nature. I stopped to think. It was just looking at the stars. Nothing mattered. Not the amount of money we had. Not where we lived. It made me stop and really appreciate life, the things that are truly important. Living in the moment and not worrying about anything until tomorrow. It put my life in perspective.”
She strove to be healthier and fit.
“That’s how I got into fitness,” Lenardo said. “I always was active, always athletic and in shape, but never to the degree I am now. I had done the gym and run.”
Her newfound interest in the gym and in weightlifting in particular has led her to heights she never thought she would reach.
“I started training real hard,” Lenardo said. “I said I love this. I do it because it makes me feel strong.”
The feeling of being in control was elating.
“I knew what it felt like to be weak and sick. I like the feeling it gives me to feel strong and be able to take on a challenge.” – Danielle Lenardo
Last year she took her training to a new level, entering her first bodybuilding competition in July and her second in November.
“It took six weeks to get into competition shape,” Lenardo said. The positive results were almost immediate.
She not only won in her category for symmetry and muscularity, she won the whole show. In her second competition, she won the whole show again.
She now qualified for the national level.
“In June, I’m going to a national competition,” Lenardo said. “It means you’re a pro-figure athlete. Maybe I’ll win some money and get sponsorship from companies.”
But that’s not really why Lenardo competes.
“I do it for the challenge, and the drive and the commitment that it takes,” she said. “I knew what it felt like to be weak and sick. I like the feeling it gives me to feel strong and be able to take on a challenge.”
Heart of a champion
But her story doesn’t end there. As her reputation grew as a bodybuilder, so did the attention she was getting. Someone saw her story on Facebook, and contacted her husband, Anthony. The person had seen the picture of her sick and then the one with her athletic victory.
The man was representing the group that gives out an honor each year in tandem with the New Jersey Golden Gloves competition.
“They wanted to do something different,” Lenardo said. “They said, ‘Why not honor a woman?’”
So on Friday, April 11, Lenardo will be the “Heart of a Champion” recipient at the Gloves’ boxing event in Paramus. The proceeds will go to the October Woman Foundation for Breast Cancer Research.
“I think it’s wonderful raising money for something that’s so important,” Lenardo said. “And I feel so honored.”
Helping those with breast cancer is what really motivates her.
“It's important for me to share my story and raise awareness for breast cancer,” Lenardo said. “I said that after surviving this, I wanted to pay it forward.”
She encourages everyone who can to attend the boxing matches and assist an important effort.
“They should go to the event to have a great night of great fights,” she said. “But also come to the event because it's for a good cause. Help other women fighting the disease. In some way, those attending are helping someone and possibly saving a life.”
Lenardo will be honored at the New Jersey Golden Gloves Boxing Championship, 65 West Century Rd., Paramus. Doors open at 7 p.m. and fights begin at 8 p.m.
Tickets are: $100, V.I.P. Ringside; $40, Ringside; and $20, general admission. For more information, or to purchase tickets, call Cassie Wordelman at (201) 265-7273, ext. 213, or Theresa Rolaf at (201) 265-1700, ext. 246.
Joseph Passantino may be reached at JoePass@hudsonreporter.com.