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Debra L. Barton, RN, PhD

Mary Lou Willard French Professor of Nursing
Associate Dean for Research
University of Michigan School of Nursing
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Current Research

Goal: To improve quality of life of female breast cancer survivors.

Impact: Dr. Barton is studying ways to address the sexual health of survivors, which is an important aspect of survivorship that is often not addressed during routine medical care. She aims to help women and their partners regain their intimacy, which is often put on hold during treatment.

What’s next: She and her team will continue evaluating an antidepressant drug to improve sexual energy/libido and will also finalize a partner intervention to improve communication and sexual function that can be delivered via a workbook and the phone. 

Many women taking anti-estrogen therapies experience unwanted side effects, such as sexual function, libido, and vaginal discomfort. These effects can be so troublesome that some women may stop therapy before completing the recommended course. Dr. Barton aims to identify ways to address the sexual health needs of breast cancer survivors, which will improve their quality of life and help them reconnect with their partners.

Full Research Summary

Research area: Improving the sexual health of female breast cancer survivors.

Impact: While advances in breast cancer therapies have led to a growing number of survivors, the treatments women undergo can lead to consequences such as vaginal pain and dryness and decreased sexual desire. Unfortunately, this important aspect of survivorship is often not addressed during routine medical care. Dr. Barton is investigating ways to manage these problems to improve quality of life during and after treatment.

Current research: She and her team are testing interventions that address four key predictors of sexual health in survivorship: vaginal symptoms, body image, sexual energy/libido, and partner issues. They are currently recruiting for a large study evaluating an antidepressant drug that affects dopamine and may result in symptoms of reduced sexual energy/libido.

What she’s learned so far: In her ongoing research, Dr. Barton has identified strategies to improve vaginal symptoms and body image, demonstrating that a vaginal gel and mind-body therapy helped both symptoms, respectively. 

What’s next: The team continues to build on their findings. In the coming year, they will finish the antidepressant study and finalize a partner intervention aimed at improving communication and sexual function that can be delivered through a workbook and via phone. They plan to test the feasibility and appropriateness of the intervention by asking women and their partners to do the activities and provide feedback. They will use participant feedback to design a larger study.


Debra Barton has been a funded investigator in oncology symptom management since 2002, having developed, implemented and completed 11 large multi-site intervention trials. She has developed phase II and III clinical trials in a variety of symptoms including fatigue, hot flashes, peripheral neuropathy, sleep problems, cognitive changes related to chemotherapy, nausea and vomiting, and sexual health, using behavioral interventions such as hypnosis and imagery as well as dietary supplements. Three previously completed trials have demonstrated promising positive effects; a topical gel for peripheral neuropathy, American ginseng for cancer related fatigue and vaginal dehydroepiandosterone (DHEA) for vaginal symptoms. She also completed a pilot study showing positive effects on hot flashes from hypnosis alone that were equal to the improvement seen with an antidepressant known to help hot flashes. Dr. Barton is currently developing a comprehensive multi-faceted intervention for improving sexual health for women with a history of cancer that involves both pharmacologic and non-pharmacologic components that address physiologic, psychosocial and cognitive variables that impact sexual health. Therefore, her approach to symptom management is to address symptoms from multiple perspectives, using more than one intervention, to reduce symptoms with minimal to no side effects.

BCRF Investigator Since


Donor Recognition

The Catherine’s Award (a subsidiary of ascena retail group inc.)

Area(s) of Focus