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Debra L. Barton, RN, PhD, FAAN

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 the quality of life for breast cancer patients following treatment.

Impact: Dr. Barton is studying ways to address the sexual health of breast cancer survivors, an important and often overlooked aspect of survivorship. 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 patients after treatment, which will improve their quality of life and help them reconnect with their partners.

Full Research Summary

Research goal: Improving the sexual health of female breast cancer patients after treatment.

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

Current investigation: Dr. Barton and her colleagues 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 also analyzing the results of their large study which evaluated the efficacy of an antidepressant drug in alleviating symptoms of reduced sexual energy/libido.

What she’s accomplished so far: 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. In addition, she and her team have conducted a large study of 230 women with breast cancer to evaluate the use of an antidepressant – bupropion, that works through a chemical in the brain associated with passion (dopamine) - to improve sexual energy and desire. They have also developed a partner intervention to improve intimacy and communication.

What’s next: Her team will continue to analyze the data obtained from the clinical trial to evaluate bupropion as a method to improve sexual desire and intimacy. Over the next year, Dr. Barton and her colleagues will explore methods to deliver their partner intervention to patients – since many patients do not have insurance coverage or access to specialists, they hope to make this intervention/ psychosocial support available in an equitable and accessible manner to as many patients as possible.  To accomplish this, they will develop a method of delivering the partner intervention through a phone app - this can potentially provide effective interventions to the community and improve the quality of life for patients after treatment. 


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 Lane Bryant Award

Area(s) of Focus