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Pretty Little Liars' Ian Harding on His Mother's Strength in Lupus Battle — and How He's Fighting for Women Like Her

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Angela Weiss/Getty Images for Lupus Foundation of America

In his new memoir, Pretty Little Liars star Ian Harding gets candid about his mother’s over two decades-long battle with lupus – and, he hopes, pays tribute to her strength.

“I didn’t want to dwell in the sadness of it and the pain of it, because my mom never did that,” Harding tells PEOPLE about writing about his mother Mary Harding’s health in Odd Birds. “She was always good at taking her pain as a lesson and moving through it. That’s what I think I’ve tried to convey in that chapter.”

The actor’s mom found out she had the difficult to diagnose chronic inflammatory disease when he was just in elementary school.

He writes in Odd Birds, “She spent weeks in bed, exhausted. Moving hurt. Talking hurt. She would break out in rashes whenever she went out in the sun. And then the rash would be replaced by a fever and her joints would swell up.”

Harding admits that he didn’t realize the severity of his mom’s disease until he was older, but tells PEOPLE that when she was first diagnosed “life expectancy was seven to eight years, and it was somewhat of a death sentence.”

Mom reminding me to breathe in between bites of cake. She still does. #tbt #mom #ballerwithabib #whatcamera

A post shared by Ian Harding. (@ianmharding) on

But Mary was resilient: “It’s as if my mother didn’t really have time to die.”

“When you’re handed such a horrible thing, it’s easy to get down, it’s easy to give up, it’s easy to have all these negative thoughts,” Harding, 30, says. “And my mother was very inspirational, because she wouldn’t let it get her down.”

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Now, the star is dedicated to helping others and advocates for the Lupus Foundation of America, which he says helps raise funds for research and grants dedicated to finding a cure.

“Apart from helping my mom, the reason I wanted to be an advocate for it is because it predominantly affects women,” says Harding. “And I knew that with my show I had a pretty strong voice to a female audience. As a result, I figured this would be a really great way to do some semblance of good in the world.”

Odd Birds also profiles Harding’s relationship with his sister Sarah, including the moment when she first came out to him over Dairy Queen ice cream.

“It was really big that she said, ‘Why don’t I take my little brother to get a blizzard at Dairy Queen and come out to him,’ ” Harding tells PEOPLE, adding, “As soon as she told me, like, it actually just kinda clicked in my mind and filled in the blanks of several questions that I had about Sarah. It didn’t really change anything between us.”

Odd Birds is now available to purchase. Says Harding, “I’m very excited for people to read it.”